The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin
Book Two in N.K. Jemisin’s GREAT CITIES duology, 2022’s The World We Make is full of action, suspense, humor and good fun. That doesn’t mean the stakes aren’t serious (the continued existence of our reality), but as she did in The City We Became, Jemisin lets herself have fun with a self-aware New York and its human avatars. In spite of the seriousness of the plot, this book is lighter in tone than the first one.
Here’s a brief recap with a risk of spoilers for The City We Became. New York City woke to awareness, a living city, with human avatars — one representing each borough and one who represents the whole city. Neek (NYC), a gay, homeless graffiti artist, represents the entirety of the city. Manny, a graduate student, is Manhattan. Padmini, an immigrant on a student visa, is a math queen and the avatar of Queens; while Brooklyn, a former rap star, a councilwoman and political activist, represents the borough whose name she took. Bronca, an artist, runs an art center in the Bronx and channels that borough. Aislyn, a fearful young woman from white Irish working class roots, calls Staten Island home, and Veneza is the avatar of Jersey City (yes, I know — not a borough.) The representative of the Ur-universe, which has killed millions of other universes on the metaversal tree, is R’lyeh, an Ur-city parked over Staten Island and invisible to most humans. R’lyeh takes human form — or tries to — as a pale-skinned blond woman dressed all in white. She never quite gets it right.
While in the first book the boroughs, with the help of Jersey City, fended off an attempt to kill New York in the cradle, so to speak, the Ur-verse has not stopped, and sends out attack after attack. R’lyeh has managed to control or possess large numbers of people on Staten Island, and otherwise unaffected humans are helping her, as a poisonous white supremacist announces his run for mayor, and his minions, the Proud Men, attack and intimidate the city residents. In a desperation move, Brooklyn throws her hat into the ring. Meanwhile, Manny and Neek reach out to the other sapient cities, trying to get help against an enemy that threatens all of them — but with limited success.
As I said, the stakes are high, and personal, when several of our heroes have moments when their connection to their borough is severed. The biggest plot twist for me came from Manny, when we learn something about his legacy (which previously he didn’t remember, or at least didn’t discuss) that could be a game-changer. I wish there had been time for more about this plot element in the story. However, it’s Padmini and her understanding of math who figures out what is happening, and intuits why, and I enjoyed spending more time with her and her family.
Jemisin knows all the New York stereotypes, and all the ones New Yorkers themselves are proud of. Thus, lines like “get off my lawn,” become anthems. One of my favorite passages is the way Brooklyn defies an attacker pursuing her in a Humvee. Brooklyn has none of her usual magic to help her, but her knowledge of the boroughs opens up a solution that is satisfying and funny. Similarly, the cadre’s human roommate Bel is saved by the city when the Proud Men come after him and he runs into the East Village meeting a group of neighbors who are having none of this terrorism business. Aislyn faces a crisis of faith when she realizes R’lyeh is changing the tastes of food on her island — especially the clam pie. Another favorite snippet of mine was the way New York uses pigeons, rat and cockroaches.
Another aspect of the fun in the book comes from the avatars of the other cities. I laughed out loud at London, and at the chic Paris avatar complaining how rude New Yorkers were, but far and away my favorite was Istanbul.
Jemisin reminds us that no alliance is perfect, and not everyone gets along. Near the end of the book Neek says, “we ain’t got to like each other to work together.” And while you may call on someone one time, in a crisis, it won’t mean that you’ll always be friends.
While Jemisin resolves the central plot issue, there is plenty of story left here. She sprang some surprises on us, and there is lots left to tell if she ever decides to revisit this universe. The World We Make is filled with vibrant characters, vivid imagery and lots of good fun. I would love to read more about all of it.