Title: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
Publication date: 24 March 2020
Genre: Adult | Fantasy
Page extent: 437 pages
Goodreads blurb: Five New Yorkers must come together in order to defend their city in the first book of a stunning new series by Hugo award-winning and NYT bestselling author N. K. Jemisin.
Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.
But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.
The City We Became is another masterpiece from speculative ficiton legend N.K Jemisin. As a non-American who has only spent five days in New York, I marvelled at the character and essence Jemisin evoked of this city. I expected great things from this book, because Jemisin is the author of my favourite adult fantasy series (The Broken Earth trilogy), and all my expectations were thoroughly met! This book entwines a brilliantly unique and imaginative a premise and the harsh and confronting realities of racism in the US, in a way that manages to bring New York to life and makes me feel like I know the city in a way I never imagined I’d be able to.
The City We Became is about what happens when the city of New York becomes alive. Sometimes, when a city grows large and develops a unique enough culture, that city’s soul can become alive. But the birth process of the city is dangerous and destructive, and smashes through other parallel universes in the process. When New York comes alive, the process is a bit different. There is such distinctive culture in each of the boroughs, that each borough awakens – and they choose one person (an avatar) to protect them, one person who personifies the culture of that city. So at the start of The City We Became, six people, one for each borough and one for the city of New York, suddenly realise they are a city. And the city needs protecting because during the birthing process, the avator of New York was injured. The Enemy is trying to kill the City whilst it’s weak, and it’s up to the five boroughs to find each other and protect the city from an attack that would kill millions.
I am in awe of Jemisin. I have never been to New York, and yet Jemisin has made me feel like I know the city. The way the culture of the boroughs is embedded in the characters is so well done, from the way they dress, to the way they act, to the the tensions between each of the characters, these characters fully embody the spirit of their home. Obviously, I’ve only spent 5 days in New York, so I feel like Americans and New Yorkers will be way more able to actually speak about how realistic and well this characterisation does actually represent the boroughs. But as an international outsider, I thought it was done fabulously, and I feel like I really get who and what each of the boroughs is. There were all so different and even though we switched between lots of POVs, every one felt so different. We have:
- Manny: the newby to New York, who literally stepped off a train platform and the city immediately took him over and made him forget his past, New York giving him the new start he moved here for. He seems to have a very dark side, a memory of a coldness and cruelty to his past to represent the coldness and cruelty of Manhattan’s business class.
- Bronca: if I had to choose a favourite, I’d choose Bronca. She’s the oldest of the team, Native American, queer, director of the Bronx Arts Centre. She’s fought all her life with AIM (the American Indian Movement), and she’s tired and doesn’t want to fight again. But she is so fierce and tough and her close relationship with daughter-figure Veneza, another employee at the Arts Centre, is sweet and so protective.
- Brooklyn: points to the best fucking entrance goes to Brooklyn, who managed to fight off an alien with a music beat and goddamn stilleto heels, she is an icon! Black, rich, councilwoman, mother, Brooklyn is as stylish as they come. She has a past as a rapper, and uses her music to give her power.
- Padmini: the woman from Queens, incredibly clever, but who’s bored out of her mind putting her mathematical brain to use in finance because that’s where they money is, which she needs to support her family.
- Aislyn: Staten Island, white, racist, doesn’t feel like part of New York, scared of change, scared of foreigners, someone who just wants to be left alone.
- And then there’s New York themselves, the homeless, skinny young man who would die for the city – but he isn’t going to let The Enemy win that fucking easily.
The diversity and uniqueness of each of these individuals, and of the boroughs they represent, was so vivid. I feel like I know New York even though I’m not a New Yorker, and not even American.
What’s just as special and as important as this incredible characterisation, is the way Jemisin entwines this hugely creative concept with the confronting insidiousness of racism and otherness. The Enemy, this creature from another world, is able to manipulate people in New York who are susceptible to bigotry – it makes them easier to manipulate into attacking the avatars of New York. From police turning into monsters, to the white women calling the cops, Jemisin showcases the way societal structures can be twisted to uphold white supremacy. What I found most haunting, most insidious and most terrifying, was the way The Enemy interacted with Aislyn, Staten Island. This is a woman who’s had a pretty shit upbringing, she lives in an abusive household, she isn’t a loud and vocal racist like her dad though she prefers if foreigners stay away from her, she’s there as the silent, complicit white person. And the way The Enemy hooks its claws into Staten Island slowly, the way it uses friendship and niceness as a weapon, the way Staten Island is willing to give it the benefit of the doubt because of how it looks, is terrifying because Jemisin made it so easy to see how white supremacy is upheld – not by the white supremacists, but by the people like Aislyn who don’t say anything, who choose to believe what’s easy and not what’s right. I want to recommend this book to every white person I know.
So suffice to say: I fucking loved this book. N.K Jemisin remains one of my favourite authors. Her books are so unique, so well researched, and she combines these huge creative powerhouse concepts with vicious take downs of societal structures and the racism they uphold. I cannot recommend enough!