The City We Became

by N.K. Jemisin

Cover image

Series: The Great Cities Trilogy #1
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: March 2020
ISBN: 0-316-50985-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 449

Buy at Powell's Books

At an unpredictable point after a city has accumulated enough history, character, and sense of itself, it is born as a living creature. It selects an avatar who both embodies the city and helps it be born. But in that moment of birth, a city is at its most vulnerable, and that is when the Enemy attacks.

The birth of cities and the Enemy attacks have happened for millennia, so the cities that have survived the process have developed a system. The most recently born goes to assist the avatar with the birthing process and help fight off Enemy attacks. But the process has become riskier and the last two cities have failed to be born, snuffed out in natural disasters despite that support.

Now, it's New York City's turn. It selects its avatar and survives the initial assault with the help of São Paulo. But something still goes wrong, and it is severely injured in the process. Complicating matters, now there are five more avatars, one for each borough, who will have to unite to fight off the Enemy. And, for the first time, the Enemy has taken human form and is attacking with reason and manipulation and intelligence, not just force.

The City We Became has a great premise: take the unique sense of place that defines a city and turn it into a literalized character in a fantasy novel. The avatars are people who retain their own lives and understanding (with one exception that I'll get to in a moment), but gain an awareness of the city they represent. They can fight and repair their city through sympathetic magic and metaphor made real. The prelude that introduces this concept (adapted from Jemisin's earlier short story "The City Born Great") got too gonzo for me, but once Jemisin settles into the main story and introduces avatars with a bit more distance from the city they represent, the premise clicked.

The execution, on the other hand, I thought was strained. The biggest problem is that the premise requires an ensemble cast of five borough avatars, the primary avatar, São Paulo, and the Enemy. That's already a lot, but for the story to work each avatar has to be firmly grounded in their own unique experience of New York, which adds family members, colleagues, and roommates. That's too much to stuff into one novel, which means characters get short shrift. For example, Padmini, the avatar of Queens, gets a great introductory scene and a beautiful bit of characterization that made her one of my favorite characters, but then all but disappears for the remainder of the book. She's in the scenes, but not in a way that matters. Brooklyn and Aislyn get moments of deep characterization, but there's so much else going on that they felt rushed. And what ever happened to Manny's roommate?

The bulk of the characterization in this book goes to Broncha, the Bronx avatar, a Lenape woman and a tough-as-nails administrator of a community art museum and maker space. The dynamics between her and her co-workers, her mentorship of Veneza, and her early encounters with the Woman in White are my favorite parts of the book. I thought she and Brooklyn were a useful contrast: two very different ways of finding a base of power in the city without letting go of one's ideals.

But before we get to Broncha, we first meet Manny, the Manhattan avatar. Thematically, I thought what Jemisin did here was extremely clever. Manny's past is essentially erased at the start of the book, so he's making sense of this world in the same way the reader is. It makes him a useful reader insert character and parallels the typical tourist experience of arriving in Manhattan and trying to use it to make sense of New York. He's disconnected from the rest of the city because he's the dangerous newcomer with power but not a lot of understanding, which works with my model of the political dynamics of Manhattan.

Unfortunately, he's not an interesting person. I appreciated what was happening at the metaphorical layer, but Manny veers between action hero and exposition prompt, and his amnesia meant I never got enough sense of him as a character to care that much about what happened to him. I thought his confrontation with the Woman in White near the start of the book, which establishes the major villain of the book, felt clunky and forced compared to her later encounters with the other characters.

The Woman in White, though, is a great villain. It's clear from earlier on that the Enemy is Lovecraftian, but the Woman in White mixes mad scientist glee, manic enthusiasm, and a child-like amusement at the weirdness of humanity into the more typical tropes of tentacles, corruption, and horrific creatures. One of my qualms about reading this book is that I'm not a horror fan and don't enjoy the mental images of unspeakable monsters, but the Woman in White puts such a fascinating spin on them that I enjoyed the scenes in which she appeared. I think the book was at its best when she was trying to psychologically manipulate the characters or attack them with corrupted but pre-existing power structures. I was less interested when it turned into an action-movie fight against animated monsters.

The other place Jemisin caught me by surprise is too much of a spoiler to describe in detail (and skip the next paragraph in its entirety if you want to avoid all spoilers):

Jemisin didn't take the moral conflict of the book in the direction I was expecting. This book is more interested in supporting the people who are already acting ethically than in redeeming people who make bad choices. That produces a deus ex machina ending that's a bit abrupt, but I appreciated the ethical stance.

Overall, I thought the premise was great but the execution was unsteady and a bit overstuffed. There are some great characters and some great scenes, but to me they felt disjointed and occasionally rushed. You also need to enjoy characters taking deep pride in the feel of a specific place and advocating for it with the vigor of a sports rivalry, along with loving descriptions of metaphors turned into magical waves of force. But, if you can roll with that, there are moments of real awe. Jemisin captured for me the joy that comes from a deeply grounded sense of connection to a place.

Recommended, albeit with caveats, if you're in the mood for reading about people who love the city they live in.

This is the first book of a planned trilogy and doesn't resolve the main conflict, but it reaches a satisfying conclusion. The title of the next book has not yet been announced at the time of this review.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-01-25

Last spun 2024-01-15 from thread modified 2021-01-31