Review: The World We Make (Great Cities 2) by N.K.Jemisin

The sequel to The City We Became completes the story with the avatars of New York boroughs forced into a final confrontation with the ghastly Woman in White. There are a few dangling plot threads, particularly around Manhattan, that leave open the possibility of a second plot arc for the NYC crew but if you don’t start a fantasy series until the story is complete, you would be safe to start this one now.

The recipe is much the same as the first book and you can read the two of them as one longer novel. It’s a mix of fun conceits (cities expressing themselves as individual people), nods to cosmic horror, and contemporary politics & social issues. The horror aspects are definitely nods rather than a genre crossover in part because the lingering cosmic evil, The Woman in White, has far too much fun to be nightmarish.

Where this second half of the story differs from the first is in providing an expanded view of the world of the cities. There are side trips to Instanbul (and his cats), Tokyo and London (a not entirely sane avatar who consumed her multitude of composite avatars). We also get a populist bigot running for mayor and a thinly disguised version of the Proud Boys acting as violent goons for the Woman in White’s machinations.

In my review of The City We Became I referenced Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a TV show that became a novel. Gaiman’s work is famously adaptable, with many of his works appearing in different formats while retaining their intrinsic aspects. I loved Coraline the book but the film version has become the more definitive version in my head. I mention this because the Great Cities duology has this odd feeling for me as if it were a novelisation of a graphic novel.

Partly this feeling of a shift in the medium is due to the adjacency of the premise to a superhero story. It is, after all, a story about ordinary people who gain superpowers and team up to fight a supervillain. That aspect is intensified by the New York setting, the most comic-book, superhero city in the world just on the number of Marvel characters based there and double/triple that once we pile in Metropolis and Gotham. Jemisin does a good job of evoking a visual experience via the written word and in a non-graphic format, you have the advantage of generating your own visuals. It’s New York, so although it is not a city I’ve ever visited, it is one which I’ve seen over and over in film and television (and comic books). I’ve less to go on though when it comes to poor old Staten Island.

Even so, with Neek, in particular, being a visual artist, I kept feeling like while this was a pair of books I was enjoying, with the right artist, this would have been a more phenomenal work.

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30 responses to “Review: The World We Make (Great Cities 2) by N.K.Jemisin”

  1. Jemisin has written for comics as well as her novels and short stories, so this isn’t entirely surprising and you’re not the only one mentioning it would work well as a graphic novel or comic series. The books have been optioned for a t.v. series for TNT, a project that is probably more likely to reach a screen sooner than the Fifth Season series, and given Jemisin’s comic connections (she did Far Sector/Green Lantern Corps for DC,) there will undoubtedly be a tie-in comics adaptation of some sort in the next few years.

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    • I would just hope that any comics adaptation of this would find a different approach to delivering background/historical information than for instance Brian Vaughan’s Ex Machina. In principle I liked Vaughan’s desire to bring in stuff about New York that not everyone knows, but I found his habit of dropping that stuff straight into the dialogue, as if every character was one of those very annoying people who constantly digresses into trivia in every conversation… well, very annoying, even though I AM one of those people. Prose fiction has, I think, a little better ability to soak up even a substantial infodump into the flow of the reading. In film there are time constraints, and in comics a big block of text looks like an blatant interruption of whatever was going on, in a way that text interrupting text doesn’t quite.

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      • Man, I hate it when novelists do that, and a lot of them do. But I don’t remember it in Ex Machina so it clearly didn’t bother me there, maybe because I don’t know NYC.

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      • It’s a matter of mediums. Written fiction uses expository pov — inner thought, feeling and perspective/analysis of pov characters, including an omniscient narrator if an author has one. So you can incorporate a lot of information through commentary thought of the pov characters and it’s easy for readers to process, even easier than pov thought of sensory description (scenic description including of action/dialogue.)

        Comics is a mixed medium that can use expository pov and narration blocks but is also using illustrations that provide visual information including character face and body language like film/tv. Comics is limited in how much dialogue it can use to convey information and perspective, more limited than film/tv and written fiction, and limited in how much expository pov it can use as well, because the text literally takes up space rather than entirely creates the space, like written fiction does. Writers sometimes play around with those limits, creating more of an illustrated novel than a straight comic, more reliant on text. That creates another mixed hybrid format.

        I would imagine that a comics adaptation for Jemisin’s City will be a tie-in to the t.v. show unless the t.v. show falls through and thus lean more on visuals than heavy text. Film/t.v. uses no to limited inner pov, possibly using voiceover narration to do it but only in limited bits, and relies on dialogue and visuals that are presented rather than described, as they are in written fiction. I don’t know if Jemisin will write any comic, but I’m sure they’ll have her consult and I would doubt there would be a heavy reliance on text approach, though it may be heavy dialogue, depending on the style of the t.v. show.

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    • In recent years, most novelists who try writing comics disappoint me but I’ll definitely take a look at one by Jemisin (it’s on the DC App so it’s only a matter of finding time).

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  2. I’m not quite done with this yet, but I’m glad to see Jemisin is tackling what some people said was a problem in the first book: the fact that when New York manifested, it wiped out all its alternate universes.

    If it sticks the landing, I think it’ll be on my Hugo list. But so far, it’s not knocking R.F. Kuang’s Babel out of my top spot.

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    • I guess I’ll see what you mean when I read ir, but I’m puzzled at the description of this as a thing “some people” said was a problem. It’s acknowledged very explicitly in the first book as being a disturbing thing, it freaks out the protagonists, and the Woman in White cites it (sincerely or not) as a justification for her side trying to kill the cities. And it seemed to me deliberately analogous to the disturbing knowledge of how all of us (where “us” = people likely to be reading Jemisin) are to some degree fruits of a poison tree, in terms of the damage humans and their systems have caused. Acknowledging that and really taking it to heart, without concluding that we should all disappear, is a familiar challenge that fantasy fiction has addressed in various ways, but I found Jemisin’s version particularly interesting because even someone with cynical feelings about humans-as-they-are can love the idea of the cities as depicted in this, and want to root for them, and then feel the impact of that revelation in a way that a cynic might have felt immune to.

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      • Yeah, I shouldn’t have phrased it like that. I went back and read my review of the first book, and you’re right: it is an inherent problem in the world, and I commented on it as such. So it is a good thing that Jemisin is dealing with it.

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    • Yeah I liked Babel more than this, although my top spot is currently held by Simon Jimenez’ The Spear Cuts through Water, if you haven’t checked that out.

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  3. DC had a New York as well. The Titans (New Teen, New, just Titans . . .) were based there in the 80s and 90s.

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  4. Will we be seeing Staten Island again?

    I related to her oddly in the first book, and hoped she’d have a chance to break free of her upbringing. Instead she stayed kind of one note, an imagining of what a suburban person would be like by someone who’s never known one very well. Couldn’t help but think it would be nice to see one non city dweller who was on the side of good.

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  5. So as a native New Yorker, although from the suburbs, I have really enjoyed this duology and how it uses New York in a way that clearly comes from someone who lives here instead of just someone who has seen NYC through movies (sorry Cam).

    That said this was originally supposed to be a trilogy and you can sort of see where shortcuts were taken to wrap it all up when Jemisin condensed it to a duology because of no longer feeling like writing this after COVID and certain political events (the election of Eric Adams, Trump). Particularly, there’s a large part of the early setup setting up the threat of the new mayor who’s a combination seemingly of Adams (obsessive about police and crime) and Trump (racist xenophobic talk). But the back half of the novel essentially forgets about him to deal with the more series-arc threat of the Women in White and her backing and the conflict between her and the rest of the Cities, with the Mayor essentially being defeated off page as an afterthought. Which disappointed me a little.

    I’ll have a deeper review on my blog probably next week. But the result was that I liked this, but can’t consider it a favorite.

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  6. ” if you don’t start a fantasy series until the story is complete,”

    That’s me! Well, any series really. My memory isn’t good enough to retain the plot for that long. That’s why I’m a physicist. I’m up to book 7 of The Expanse!

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