Fantasy writer N. K. Jemisin has a well-deserved reputation for blowing readers’ minds with her beautifully detailed, fully breathing worlds, and her new novel The City We Became is no exception. It’s also different from her recent work in substantial and important ways. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy began in a wrecked, post-apocalyptic world. The world she created in the Inheritance trilogy is intricate and regimented. Both had their own rules and framework, as well as carefully crafted systems of theology and government, and both came alive purely through the power of Jemisin’s formidable imagination.
The world Jemisin draws in the pages of The City We Became is different. This time around, we’re in the world of modern-day New York City—but not necessarily our New York City. The setting is both fully consistent with reality as we know it—for better or worse—and jam-packed with imaginative, fantastical elements.
The City We Became leaps straight into the action with an unnamed, young black man who sings and spray-paints, meets up with someone named Paolo, and quickly becomes embroiled in a life-threatening, explosively supernatural fight on the FDR. Jemisin doesn’t coddle her readers, and the speed at which events unfold can be disorienting. Readers more familiar with New York City will have a leg up, but regardless, the density of Jemisin’s sentences sometimes requires you to go back and re-read in order to make sure you know what’s going on. The good news is, they’re great sentences, and a little extra time spent on this book is time well-spent.
The premise of The City We Became is, in some ways, simple: when cities grow to a certain point, they are “born” into a kind of sentience, and the moment of birth presents both opportunities and dangers. One person becomes the city’s avatar and fights against the ancient evil that threatens the newly born city. But in this case, the fight (that battle on the FDR) doesn’t go well, and New York City’s avatar—that singing, painting young man—while not destroyed completely, is definitely down for the count.
Enter five more avatars, each representing one of the city’s five boroughs, who must find each other, recognize and own their power, and fight the considerable evil that’s popping up in the city all around them. The creepiness of the villain here is one of the book’s strongest elements, and the genuinely unsettling way New Yorkers are drafted into the fight keeps the power balance shifting moment by moment.
From time to time, it does feel like the resonance between the avatar’s previous lives and the borough they represent is underlined once or twice too often, but then again, that may also depend on the reader. Is the fact that Brooklyn’s avatar is both a city councilwoman and former MC too much or just enough? Are the racists and would-be-rapists who surround Staten Island’s avatar—first name Aislyn, like Island—uncomfortably realistic or overly simplified? Readers can make up their own minds, but regardless, the book’s heady blend of reality and fantasy makes it ideal for discussing real-world problems in the context of an imagined environment.
Jemisin has been quoted as calling this story “my chance to have a little monstrous fun after the weight of the Broken Earth saga,” and it does read far lighter than that series. But it’s still laced with Jemisin’s trademark rigor, a sharp eye on systems and values that doesn’t let anyone or anything off the hook. It isn’t a book to fall asleep to, but a book to wake up with, when your mind is fresh and ready and open.
The City We Became
By N. K. Jemisin
Published March 24, 2020