Published by Orbit on March 24, 2020
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Magical Realism, LGBTQ
My favorite fantasy series to this day is the Broken Earth Trilogy, by the prolific N. K. Jemisin. I was eager to read Jemisin’s newest book The City We Became, but perhaps my expectations were set too high. In this urban fantasy, cities are living beings and are represented by human avatars. After New York City’s primary avatar falls into a coma, five new avatars, one for each New York City borough, are awakened. The novel contains plenty of social commentary, highlighting each of the boroughs and including Lovecraftian references. Jemisin’s story is a tribute to New York, which she clearly loves.
Jemisin is the queen of worldbuilding, and here she has crafted an interesting world where cities are living beings. Each city is defended by an avatar, a human embodiment of the city. Some cities reach a point in their growth where they begin to awaken. The time of awakening is crucial, and the city will either come alive or fail (like Atlantis). Once a city dies, so does its avatar. A sinister outside force is threatening New York City because it is close to waking up. This enemy appears in multiple pale, white-colored forms, including Lovecraftian inspired monsters. At the start of the novel, the avatar of New York City, assisted by the avatar of San Paulo bests the enemy in a fight. But the primary avatar overexerts himself in the battle and goes into a coma in an unknown location. Once he goes missing five new avatars come into power, one representing each of New York’s boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island (Jemisin is clearly not a Staten Island fan). The novel focuses on the avatars finding each other and working together to battle the enemy. This is the first book in a planned trilogy by Jemisin.
There were many things I loved in The City We Became. Jemisin’s writing is exceptionally vivid. The action scenes played out clearly in my mind. I also appreciated the diversity of the characters, with plenty characters of color and from the LGBTQ+ community. For me, the best and most developed character was the Lenape lesbian woman, Bronca, AKA the Bronx. Bronca’s art curating career was fascinating. I could have easily read an entire novel focused on her character. Jemisin includes lots of creative details that made the novel so much fun. One clever example is that Manhattan fights enemies by throwing money at them, because one of the borough’s biggest industries is Wall Street. I also enjoyed how Jemisin reworked Lovecraftian monsters. If you are not aware, H.P. Lovecraft has made a huge impact in science fiction and fantasy, but he held largely disgusting racist ideals. Having the “pale” Lovecraftian monsters empower white racists in NYC was a way of giving a nod to the beloved Lovecraftian monsters, while also pointing out their creator’s flaws. This reminded me of the excellent HBO show Lovecraft Country (based off the novel I have yet to read). The ending of The City We Became, was not what I expected. Without spoiling anything, I feel that Jemisin made a bold statement, clearly defining her own version of New York. I imagine New Yorkers will be strongly polarized in their reactions to the book’s conclusion.
I really wanted to love The City We Became more than I did. Unfortunately, there are some flaws that prevent me from strongly recommending this to fellow readers. While Bronca was great, most characters were not fully developed. For me, the book almost reads as a movie script, more than a novel. The action scenes are well described and ready for the big screen, but character development is lacking. The New York avatars are like a more diverse version of The Avengers. The end of the story felt rushed, and some character motivations were not clear. Hopefully Jemisin will provide more explanation in the subsequent books. If you are a fan of Jemisin, or you are looking for a fun, quick-reading fantasy novel, this is worth the read. If you have yet to read Jemisin’s masterpiece: The Broken Earth trilogy, I strongly suggest you start there instead.