The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
Note: N.K. Jemisin’s short story “The City Born Great,” free at Tor.com, is the opening chapter of this novel.
New York City is in danger from eldritch horrors. We’ve seen these things before, originally, and most notably, in stories by H.P. Lovecraft. These beings come from outside our universe. They are ancient, powerful, and merciless, and there is no negotiating with them. They want our planet and they’re looking for a way into our world to destroy us. They’re even using some of our fellow humans as minions to try to get a tentacle in the door.
They like to attack human cities when they are most vulnerable — right at the moment of birth — the moment when, after decades, possibly centuries, of existence, they develop enough culture to have their own identity:
… the many parts of the city begin to multiply and differentiate. Its sewers extend into places where there is no need for water. Its slums grow teeth; its art centers, claws. Ordinary things within it, traffic and construction and stuff like that, start to have a rhythm like a heartbeat, if you record their sounds and play them back fast. The city… quickens.
But great cities have defenders. These are humans who, due to their traits, values, and ethics, somehow embody the essence of the city. Most of these avatars have lived for a long time in their city, perhaps all their life, but that’s not a requirement. In fact, even a newcomer could be a city’s avatar if they possess the traits that make them quintessentially “the city” and come to love it.
Each borough in New York City has a human avatar and then there’s one avatar that represents the entire city. You’ve never seen these kinds of people in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories… or, if you have, they weren’t the heroes. Jemisin’s heroes are a mixture of races, religions, cultures, classes, and sexual orientations. These champions of New York City must find each other and work together to eradicate the ancient evil that threatens their home.
Manny (that’s the nickname he gives himself) is a mixed-race newcomer who just moved to NYC for grad school but ends up being Manhattan’s representative. (Cities are dynamic, they have no problem incorporating something new.) Manny has never been to New York before but he instinctively knows what belongs and what doesn’t. Macy’s belongs to Manhattan but Sbarro, TGI Fridays, and Foot Locker are “like paper cuts, or little quick slaps to the face.”
Brooklyn used to be a famous rapper but is now a lawyer on the city council. She befriends Manny and teaches him how to be a New Yorker. The avatar of Queens is Padmini, a quiet graduate student who can see the math behind the universe. As director of the Bronx Art Center, Dr. Bronca Siwanoy represents the Bronx. She’s older, but she’s a total badass and she doesn’t trust anybody. The enemy tries to seduce her with grant money, but this tough old woman can literally kick down doors.
Aislyn, the avatar of Staten Island, is the only representative of the city who’s white. She lives with her father, a racist cop who blames all of NYC’s problems on the immigrants. The eldritch enemy hopes to manipulate Aislyn’s fears and hates for its own ends.
Jemisin is really hard on the culture of Staten Island, painting its avatar and, by extension, many of its citizens, as “assholes,” “small-town thinkers,” “probably Republican,” and afraid of the diversity in other parts of the city:
prancing manbunned baristas… prissy chink bitches who barely speak English… feminists and Jews and trannies and nnnnnNegroes and liberals, libtards everywhere, making the world safe for every kind of pervert.
(I don’t know if this is true of Staten Island in particular, or if it’s the way Jemisin views suburbanites in general, but I found this broad brush to be distasteful and, ironically, exactly the kind of prejudice her story is berating. It was the only thing I didn’t like about The City We Became.)
The City We Became is often angry, intense, and unflinching. It’s Lovecraft-inspired but only in the sense that it acknowledges his work. It does not respect it. It’s a response, an answer. It’s a message to Lovecraft about the kinds of people who really belong to the city.
I love New York City, but I’ve spent only a handful of days there, and mostly in Manhattan. Even with my limited experience, I could feel what Jemisin described as the culture of the city — people of different ethnicities, all wearing each other’s fashions and eating each other’s food, citizens changing each other and making something new. I love how she described it, to fit the Lovecraft theme, as multiple universes converging.
I enjoyed this well-crafted novel, but The City We Became will resonate most with people who truly know and love New York City. Those who feel like their soul belongs there. Those who worry about the intrusion of low-end retailers, condos, and gentrification. They will love this book.
The City We Became is the first book in the GREAT CITIES trilogy. I look forward to the next novel. The audiobook versions of this trilogy are being produced by Hachette Audio and read, in a delightfully spirited manner, by Robin Miles. You can get a taste of her fabulous performance by clicking the “Audio Sample” button under the book cover image at Amazon.
This sounds great, Kat! Thanks for the review!
I LOVED her previous books but this one didn’t work for me, maybe because her politics have finally overpowered her literary ambitions. For an excellent book about a supernatural New York read A City Dreaming by Daniel Polanski.
I’ve liked that one, Wimsey! https://fantasyliterature.com/reviews/a-city-dreaming/