By: N.K. Jemisin
In Manhattan, a young grad student gets off the train and realizes he doesn’t remember who he is, where he’s from, or even his own name. But he can sense the beating heart of the city, see its history, and feel its power.
In the Bronx, a Lenape gallery director discovers strange graffiti scattered throughout the city, so beautiful and powerful it’s as if the paint is literally calling to her.
In Brooklyn, a former rapper turned politician finds she can hear the songs of her city, pulsing to the beat of her Louboutin heels.
And they are not alone.
Every great city has a soul. A heart. An avatar that lives with the knowledge and power of its people. New York? She’s got six.
With each borough of New York possessing a different avatar, I appreciated that Jemisin made the decision to give each a unique personality that embodied that borough. I felt like I really got a taste for the different flavors of New York. Manhattan is “where money talks and bullshit walks,” Brooklyn is the brownstone built giant on the financial come-up that wants to be the sophisticated sibling, Queens is the home of the working class immagrant families trying to make lives for themselves, the Bronx is the scrappy underdog with rundown neighborhoods and art at its heart, and Staten Island just wants to be left alone.
There were so many instances in The City We Became where I thought the premise was interesting and unique to the point where just reading the dust jacket made me think this would be a 5-star book. Jemisin’s use of the multiverse and how cities are “born” would have been a refreshing take on science fiction, but the execution left something to be desired. A significant chunk of this book is exposition where either the villain or another city avatar tries to explain what is happening. We learn information at the same rate as the characters with no help from an omniscient narrator. Truthfully that probably worked in the book’s favor since it keeps the reader in suspense waiting for the next info dump. But that’s the issue right there. I learned everything in this story through a series of scattered info dumps and generally wasn’t impressed with the breaks for action scenes. I battled with wanting to know what happened next while feeling like the story was a slog to get through at 434 pages.
Exposition, when handled with care, can be a wonderful addition to a story but here it felt like the only way Jemisin could get her plot to seem coherent. The best way to describe this story might simply be “odd with consistently half-baked concepts.” There’s too much going on at once and the story should have felt more contained than it did.
Part of the reason the info dumps were necessary was because the story leans heavily into Lovecraftian ideas of existential dread and the unseen monsters that want to come to our world. I found some of the fight scenes and other worldly horrors difficult to visualize and now recognize that I don’t fancy novels that take their “high concepts” too seriously. I like concrete ideas that I can clearly see in my mind’s eye and don’t take pleasure in performing mental acrobatics which is why I’ve steared clear of Lovecraft’s work. His use of endless adjectives and repetitive phrases would be agony for my brain. Canonically, the villain goes so far as to say Lovecraft was the only human to get it right or at least come close to what the multiverse actually is and the horrors that exist in it. I don’t know whether to applaud Jemsin’s nod to him or crticize it for being derivative because some of the references were a little heavy-handed.
Those references are also the only resaon I could see this book being marketed as fantasy when it so clearly fell into the science fiction or possibly even horror genres. I believe the rationale came down to Jemisin already existing in fantasy spaces as an established author so it just made sense to market it as more of the same.
I can at least appreciate that the villain is consistent in her motives from the beginning while the scale of her plan changes over time. It was cool to witness characters experience dawning horror at the scale of their conflict. In that way and that way alone, the pacing was good, but I still say this story could have been shorter or at least less dialogue heavy.
If I had to pick a favorite character it would be Bronca (the Bronx) since she is the clear MVP of New York’s boroughs. She was the only one who had any idea what the hell was going on, kind of.
Overall rating: 2
P.S. I refrained from including any spoilers and therefore recognzie that my review may seem short. There was honestly so much to say about all the degrees of weird this story was that I had to tell my boyfriend about it, and now he’s going to read the book. Not because I thought it was good but because he wants the full picture of what the heck I’m talking about.
Thanks Keaton ❤