I don’t know what I expected. I mean, N.K. Jemisin can do no wrong if you ask me, but you never know, especially when an author branches out from epic fantasy novels into something more urban and contemporary. But if the author possesses enoughs kill and creativity, we still end up with a great novel. And we don’t have to debate Jemisin’s skill after her three-in-a-row record-breaking Hugo wins.
THE CITY WE BECAME
by N. K. Jemisin
narrated by Robin Miles
Published: Orbit, 2020
Hardback: 437 pages
Audiboook: 16 hours 14 minutes
Series: The Great Cities Trilogy #1
My rating: 9/10
Opening line: I sing the city.
Five New Yorkers must come together in order to defend their city in the first book of a stunning new series by Hugo award-winning and NYT bestselling author N. K. Jemisin.
Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.
But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.
Wow! This may not have been the first review of one of Jemisin’s book that I start with a simple “wow” but it’s the most succinct way of summing up my feelings about her ideas, her writing, her characters, and her plots. If her three consecutive Hugo wins haven’t convinced you yet, N.K. Jemisin is a shining star in the SFF field and I am so happy for her success! But as any truly great writer, she doesn’t just rest on her award wins but keeps working and keeps getting better and better. I will do my best to sum up my thoughts in a coherent fashion, but my review will probably end up very long and somewhat rambly. I am only a little sorry for that. 🙂
When Great Cities are born, a human avatar comes into their power. It’s happened with many cities on Earth, but now it’s New York’s time! A young homeless man feels himself become the city and the city coming to life. But something is wrong – it’s too much for him alone to hold and there’s something dangerous and evil lurking in the shadows… Cue the awakening of five other humans “awakening”, representing each of New York City’s burroughs. This is their story.
Having never been to New York, I only had pop culture and friends’ accounts to use as reference, and I really have no idea whether the descriptions and personalities for the five burroughs can be called accurate or fitting. But it certainly felt that way. We first meet Manny – Manhattan – who is new in the city and has no memories of his previous life. But even though it’s his first time in New York, he knows there shouldn’t be white tentacles growing out of the street and he knows something weird is going on in his mind.
We may start with Manny but he is the character that remained the most mysterious until the end. Sure, as some of his memories come back – mostly flashes, feelings, and ideas, not actual scenes – he becomes more fleshed-out. But I didn’t really connect with him the way I did with the others. Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t sympathetic. It’s a sign of great writing that I even cared about a character that I don’t know a lot about.
Brooklyn is a former MC turned politician and all she really wants is to make sure her daughter and father are safe! When she meets Manny, she’s kind of his lifeline because Brooklyn understands a little more about what’s going on and why she’s suddenly the avatar of her burrough. But even she doesn’t have all the answers.
When I say I found Brooklyn to be the second-weakest of the characters, that doesn’t say much. Because even though the others are more fleshed out and we get to spend more time with them alone, outside of the group, she still comes across as a believable human being whose welfare was important to me as I read. Actually, scratch that bit about “second-weakest” – I liked Brooklyn and she grew on me more and more over the course of this novel.
Bronca, the newly-born avatar of the Bronx, sees the big picture. Not just about the birth of her city and her fellow burroughs, but about what’s going wrong in the world. She runs an art gallery in the Bronx and just wants to make the world a little better. But it’s not easy when she has to deal with disgusting art by racists pretending to do good…
I adored Bronca! First of all, she’s an older woman of Lenape heritage who doesn’t take shit from anyone. But she’s also caring and deeply protective of the people she loves. Her dynamics with young Venesa (part surrogate daughter, part protégée) were beautiful to read and showed different aspects of Bronca’s personality. I also enjoyed her storyline with the art gallery a lot which made her my favorite character to read about.
Queens is a young woman of Indian descent named Padmini who lives and breathes mathematics. She comes into the mix rather late but I loved her from the get go. Her reaction to suddenly being Queens is the exact correct level freaked-out. But while she may appear somewhat quite or even meek at first, she soon shows her strength when it is most needed.
Now this book wouldn’t be very fun if all characters were essentially good, so there is a villain and a good one at that. And then there’s Staten Island. Aislyn has grown up very differently from the other characters. Raised by a protective and super racist cop father, she has learned that white = good and brown = bad. Men are dangerous, nicely-dressed women are safe. So it’s no surprise that Aislyn is the one who listens to the strange woman in white who may or may not have something to do with the weird white tentacles growing out of the street and sometimes even out of people.
As you may have guessed already, there is a lot of social commentary in this book. And if what Jemisin has to say about the state of the world differs from how you see things, you probably won’t like The City We Became very much. I, however, am on board and I thought she did a great job in showing how a group of diverse people deal with all the shit that’s happening on a daily basis. Whether it’s some dude mansplaining to Bronca why his torture porn piece of art isn’t racist when it clearly is, or Brooklyn worrying about her daughter’s safety, whether it’s the New York avatar’s homelessness or Queen’s fear that her family might be deported – there’s a lot to think about here and it’s all presented in a careful, respectful manner. Most importantly – while Jemisin’s message is clear and not particularly subtle, it is never hammered in. I didn’t feel lectured at any point. She simply invites you to think about certain things and while her characters certainly know what they think about these issues, you are welcome to make up your own mind.
The same people who might be opposed to Jemisin’s social commentary will probably also have things to say about the diversity of the characters. Except for Aislyn, all the protagonist and side characters are People of Color, some of them queer. Honestly, if the avatars of a city as big and diverse as New York had been all white people, I would have been shocked and it would have made the whole idea of this novel less interesting. I also found that Jemisin made her characters effortlessly diverse, without any heavy-handedness. And I find it hilarious that the book itself even mentions how bigots react to this kind of thing, accusing people of using POC as tokens, of trying to gain political correctness points, and so on. This book can certainly be read as simply a great story but I loved the meta apsects of it as well. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Better New York Foundation reminded me quite a bit of a certain group of “melancholy canines” that was opposed to women and POC winning Hugo Awards a few years ago…
So many words written and I haven’t even talked about the plot yet. Well, it’s both simple and complicated. Essentially, the burroughs find out that they are the avatars of a newborn city and they should probably all get together and also see what happened to the avatar of New York as a whole. Oh, and while they’re at it, try not to get killed by the woman in white and her evil tentacles. Why? Well, to save their city, of course!
The driving force behind all their actions is a deep love for their sprawling, beautiful, flawed city and the wish for everyone in it to have a good life. It may not be a quest to throw a ring in a volcano but it was just as exciting. There’s a nice, solid build-up to the climax that leads to a thoroughly satisfying ending. That’s all I can say without spoiling the fun.
I treated myself to the audiobook version and I was so happy about the narrator. Robin Miles does such an amazing job reading this book! She does different accents for the characters, some of them better than others. I found her British accent really good and she absolutely nailed the nuances between the differenct characters’ way of speaking. Sao Paolo’s accent was a bit of a miss but then again, Miles is a narrator, not an impersonator. Considering all her other qualities – reading action-packed scenes with the necessary urgency, doing different voices for different characters, having a brilliant maniacal evil laugh – I can forgive the slightly off accent for Paolo.
Another thing about the audiobook that I want to mention is the occasional sound effects and music. They don’t happen often, but they give the story that little extra that helps immerse yourself in it. I definitely loved it!
If you like a diverse cast, reading about a city like it was a character (and which city isn’t, really?), about current issues wrapped in a fantastic tale, about friendships and family, then pick up this book. Jemisin’s writing is superb as always and this story is all the better for being a book-shaped middle finger in the direction of people who think they deserve better than others, be it because of skin color, gender, or sexual preference. This New York is for everyone!
MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!