The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

The Blurb On The Back:

Dazzling with imagination, brimming with passion and crackling with wit, The City We Became is a modern masterpiece of culture, identity, magic and myth in contemporary New York City.

Every great city has a soul.  Some are ancient as myths; others are as new and destructive as children.  New York?  She’s got six – and all six will be called to arms in the greatest battle the city has ever fought.

You can order THE CITY WE BECAME by N. K. Jemisin from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

A homeless young man lives in New York City.  He’s a streetwise hustler who knows how to avoid the police, save and use his money and where it’s safe to sleep at night.  He’s also a graffiti artist, who leaves his art across the city’s buildings.  Lately he’s caught the attention of Paulo, a visitor to the city who buys the young man meals and tries to teach him about the life of a city, of the way it comes to life and tells him to listen to his sounds and rhythms.  For Paulo knows that New York City is about to come to life and the young man will become its avatar or living incarnation.  

But there are powerful forces opposed to New York’s birthing – an ancient horror with its own plans for the city and whose plans have been long in the making.  When New York City is finally birthed and its enemies strike, the city’s soul is split in six – New York City, Queen’s, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island.  While Paulo has tried to advise New York City on his task, the five borough avatars are unprepared for the responsibility and the power that’s been thrust upon them.  

Now the five borough avatars must come to terms with who they are and find each other, before New York City’s enemy can locate New York City and destroy the city once and for all.

N. K. Jemisin’s urban fantasy (the first in a trilogy) is a smartly imagined rejoinder to H. P. Lovecraft’s racism by using his concept of “eldritch horror” and updating it to the ever-present problem of racism, “gentrification” and white privilege while making clear that New York’s strength comes from its vibrant, cosmopolitan population.  It’s a clever, vivid read that really conveys the city’s vibe and I look forward to reading the sequel.

I knew Jemisin’s award-winning reputation before picking up this book but hadn’t read her work (an omission that I will correct) so wasn’t sure what to expect.  I was a little discombobulated in the opening chapters because she does drop you straight into the action with the unnamed young man already in contact with Paulo and knowing that something is happening to him, something is changing such that the initial conflict with the enemy has happened by the end of the prologue.  

The action then moves on to each of the 5 borough avatars, starting with Manny, a young man who has literally just arrived at Penn Street Station ready to start a Phd in political theory at Columbia University when he comes into his powers – and at the same time loses his memory of who he was before.  It’s a clever thing to do because it allows Jemisin to explore in more depth what it means to be an avatar while also slowly revealing the enemy that faces it and as the other avatars are revealed – Bronca (the director of a cultural and art centre and avatar of the Bronx), Brooklyn (a council woman, former rapper and avatar of Brooklyn), Aislyn (a young woman bullied by her father and scared of the city, who’s the avatar of Staten Island), and Padmini (a brilliant mathematician studying for a masters in financial modelling and interning on Wall Street and avatar of Queen’s).  

Jemisin uses each avatar and their story to explore the nature and culture of each of the boroughs while also using their interactions with the enemy – known as the White Lady –  to explore its nature and its aims.  The themes of the evils and unfairness of gentrification and how the rules are used against minorities and people of colour really come out here and it’s noticeable how, with the exception of Aislyn (who herself is a descendant of Irish immigrants), all of the avatars are people of colour.  This is important because one of the main themes of the book is a harsh clapback at the racism of H P Lovecraft, who is name checked several times through the book.  Certainly, Jemisin draws direct links between the Woman in White and Lovecraft’s eldritch horror and she uses racists and stokes fear and prejudice on the part of white people to help reach her aims.  This is particularly the case with the scared, browbeaten Aislyn, who has been brought up to fear the city (to the extent that she’s too scared to get on the ferry to go there) by her police officer father (a racist, sexist, homophobic control freak who has psychologically brutalised his daughter and his wife) and who, as a result, the White Lady literally gets her hooks into by playing on her fears and prejudices.

The plot is fairly simple – the five avatars must find each other (helped in part by Paulo) and then find New York City before the White Lady can make her final attack.  But Jemisin still manages to make that plot rich in imagery and location – she has such a rich, vivid imagination that you really get a feel for each of the characters and the areas they represent – and when they discover what finding New York City may mean for each of them, you do feel for the conflict it creates for them.  That said, the avatars do not get equal page time with Queens having noticeably less to do than the others and, in my opinion, being less developed on the page and having less to do (although I would expect this to change in future books).  There are also points where Jemisin gets a little too bog downed in sketching out her world and the avatar’s abilities, which does slow things down at times and I found the final confrontation to be over too quickly and, as a result, a bit of an anti climax.

That said, I did enjoy this book.  It’s smart, entertaining and has a huge scope for the overall trilogy as it dangles the possibility of meeting other city avatars and I will definitely be reading on.

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