While this blog has been, and always will be, a great proponent of fantasy, most of the fantasy novels I have reviewed skew towards variations of high fantasy. Almost all take place in an alternate world; that is, not Earth in the present day or accurate history. For many authors, creating an entirely new world can actually be much easier than trying to base your fantasy in the real world. By creating your own world, you set the rules. Magic works, or does not work, as you see fit. However, even in these fantastical lands, authors are still able to talk about modern issues, usually through coded language and stand-ins. For example, the Na’vi in the film Avatar are used as a stand-in for the many indigenous tribes of North America around the time of European colonization. However, urban fantasy is a different beast altogether. By using the real, modern-day world, such subjects can be tackled head-on, without euphemism or substitution.
N. K. Jemisin’s latest novel, The City We Became, is one such work of urban fantasy and the beginning of a planned trilogy. Her previous trilogy, the excellent Broken Earth series, clearly marked her as one of the greatest living modern fantasy authors, winning her the coveted Hugo Award three years in a row, once for each novel, as well as the Locus and Nebula awards for the third book in the series, The Stone Sky. Anyone who has read her previous works knows that Jemisin is no stranger to using her fiction to tackle themes of oppression, cultural conflict, and systems of abuse by those in power. A resident of New York City herself, Jemisin brings this passion to her home, crafting a love letter to her city that does not try to hide the ugliness. Gentrification, bigotry, and colonization are all front and center in The City We Became.
The City We Became may take place in the modern-day world, with one very important difference. In Jemisin’s world, cities are alive. Or rather, they can become alive. The process is never completely explained as even the characters do not understand it completely. Cities are a unique feature of societies in that they demolish homogeny whenever they appear. In a city, please from all walks of life and from many different starting points gather together, trading everything they own. Languages are swapped and merged, creating new dialects and slang. Food from a multitude of different cultures mix and meet and combine, and create a new food culture completely unique that city. In places like NYC or Los Angeles, one can find food from all over the world, and whatever combination of those foods you can think of. When a city becomes large enough and old enough, a collective consciousness can start to appear, where people truly see themselves as part of a new community. At a certain point in that city’s life, it is born. The city chooses an avatar from its residents, the one who most embodies what it means to belong to that city. That avatar becomes the city, living as long as the city remains alive. But New York City is not like other cities. Instead of one avatar, she gets six.
Every city has different neighborhoods and towns within its borders, but the five boroughs of NYC are something else. Five completely different communities, all interconnected and part of one larger city, but with their own separate identities. You are not just from New York, you are from the Bronx, or Queens. In The City We Became, every borough is appointed its own avatar, along with the primary. New York City itself. The story contains chapters told from every avatar’s point-of-view, although the focus really stays with three. The first avatar we meet is New York’s primary. A young, black, queer, homeless man. Like his city, he has lived a difficult life, but has never stopped surviving. After meeting New York, the book quickly moves to the character we probably spend the most time with: Manhattan, a young multiracial man whose skin color is such that characters believe he could have come from so many places in the world. A newcomer to New York City, Manhattan is unique in that he suffers from completely amnesia after becoming the avatar from his borough. Highly intelligent, with a cold, violent streak, he comes to New York to become a better person, but knows that sometimes violence is necessary to protect your community.
Manhattan, or Manny, quickly meets Brooklyn “MC Free” Thomason, the Brooklyn avatar, when she rescues him early on in the story. A black woman, former rapper, and now city council member, Brooklyn brings a practical toughness with her. She knows how to use political structures to her advantage, but still has not lost the rhythm that only rappers and poets truly understand. The two of them later travel to Queens and encounter Padmini Prakash, a young Tamil mathematician and the avatar of Queens. Padmini is the youngest of the group, but no less capable, although there are few moments where she nearly becomes overwhelmed by the sheer scope of her new existence. The avatar from the Bronx, however, is toughness incarnate. Bronca Siwanoy, a queer Lenape woman in her 60’s who rioted at Stonewall, runs an art gallery helping local artists find their way. Finally, there is the avatar of Staten Island, Aislyn Houlihan. A thirty-year old white woman living at home with her long-suffering mother and abusive, racist, police offer father. Wanting to escape he abuse, but trained to afraid of everyone who is not white, Aislyn and trauma end up becoming central to the plot, although I will provide no spoilers.
But every novel needs conflict, and The City We Became does not disappoint in its choice of antagonist. Only know as the Woman in White for most of the novel, the Enemy is out to destroy the avatars of New York City and, by extension, destroy New York City itself. The Woman in White does not appear to a singular entity, however, manifesting as a growing infection in the city. Almost appearing like a fungus, her traces are normally only visible to the city avatars, although Manhattan can allow New Yorkers to see the enemy if they might be useful in combatting it. According the two other cities we briefly meet, São Paulo and Hong Kong, the enemy has never had a face before. With pervious cities, it has attacked brutally and monstrously, but without personality and without strategy. This time is different, however. After a catastrophic clash with the primary avatar in the opening chapters, the enemy takes shape and starts possessing people in the city to speak with the avatars. Using its parasitic feelers, the enemy infects person after person, spreading their influence and corruption. While we do learn the enemy’s true identity—making many genre nerds very happy in the process—so much about the Woman in White remains unknown. Luckily for readers, this is just the beginning of the series. It is not a spoiler to say that the enemy remains at the finale.
The avatars of NYC fight the Woman in White’s forces through the use of constructs, things which most embody their history, their city, and their borough. For Manhattan, that is checkered taxis and credit cards and umbrellas. Brooklyn has a literal rap battle, while the Bronx stomps with the boots she marched in to advance LGBT+ rights. Queens weaponizes her intelligence and mathematics, while Aislyn’s strongest asses is her passiveness of Staten Island and her xenophobia towards the rest of the city. Given their backgrounds and communities, it is no mistake that the Woman in White is white. Where New York fights with symbols of culture and community, for the most part, their enemy weaponizes gentrification and bigotry. Early on, a white woman in a park, infected by the enemy, threatens to call the police on Manhattan for the crime of walking in the park with a transgender man. Later, the Bronx has to deal with targeted online harassment perpetuated by a racist, right wing group after her gallery rejects their artwork portraying negative racial stereotypes. Where New York city represents community and culture, the enemy is colonization and homogeny. She seeks out those who believe they are under attack by the advancement of equal human rights or become offended when racists are called as racist, and aims their misguided anger at the destruction of New York City. Like many of her real-world equivalents, the Woman in White is only pushed back, ejected from the world she tried to co-opt and harm. But she is not gone, not completely.
New York City is a city that knows its history. It is ugly, it is violent, and it is corrupt. But it also the rare place where people from all over the world come to make a better life for themselves and their family. People living all over the world know about the city and its residents. Like so many other New Yorkers, N. K. Jemisin may not have been born there, but the city adopts all who call its streets home, even temporarily. The residents love and hate their city, and New Yorkers will always fight to defend their home. It may be ugly and dangerous, but it is theirs.
The City We Became may be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 14 days
Next on the List: Forged in Fire and Stars, by Andrea Robertson