Should You Read The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin?

“I sing the city.

“Fucking city. I stand on the rooftop of a building I don’t live in and spread my arms and tighten my middle and yell nonsense ululations at the construction site that blocks my view. I’m really singing to the cityscape beyond. The city’ll figure it out.”

– Opening of The City We Became

The city of New York is coming to life. Literally. A homeless young graffiti artist hears its labored breathing and paints for it new mouths. A new friend named Paulo—São Paulo—tells him he must help the city be born, but there is a terrible enemy who wants to destroy it all. When the water breaks and the enemy tries to take advantage, the young man fights with pieces of the city itself: the toxic waste of Gowanus, the traffic of the LIRR, the “drunk rage of ten thousand dudebros” from Hoboken (an honorary part of New York, apparently). And all of that is prologue. Because although the enemy slinks away in pain, something has gone wrong. Paulo expected this young man to become the avatar of New York, just as he himself is the avatar of São Paulo. Instead, the young man falls unconscious and vanishes. Five boroughs gain avatars of their own, causing the chosen inhabitants to awaken to their new lives alone, confused, and entirely unprepared for the enemy that’s coming after them.

The City We Became is an urban fantasy that reads like a love letter to the city of New York. A love letter that recognizes the city’s flaws and struggles and the atrocities of its past, while showing the reader why even the residents who claim to hate it never want to leave. The five main characters, each intended to be the representative of a particular borough, are a diverse group, showcasing the many groups of people who make up the city and sporting unique powers derived from the very essence of what their borough is. The enemy, meanwhile, is an extradimensional tentacled monster who takes the form of a woman when she chooses and infects every person who is predisposed to destroying everything that makes the city what it is. Her tentacles infest Starbucks locations that replace local coffee shops and grow from the necks of racists who want galleries to showcase their mediocre, bigotry-laden art and tear down works of genius by people of color to make room for it. The tension of the book is split between action-packed fights against the enemy, heart-wrenching struggles against forces that seek to control through monetary dominance and the exploitation of legal loopholes, and the need for each of the five to find each other and join forces. There’s never a dull moment, and there’s a multitude of characters for readers to fall in love with.

As someone who’s only visited New York City once and doesn’t know much about it beyond the surface level understanding gained from other books, films, and television shows, I was concerned at first that I wouldn’t enjoy this book as much as a native New Yorker or even a person who lives in a large city. I think there might be some truth to that, as I prefer not to live in a big city and so don’t completely understand the love these characters have for theirs. But as far as understanding goes, I didn’t have nearly the difficulty I’d expected. Explanations are scattered throughout to give a sense of what each borough is known for, where they’re located in relation to each other, and many other things that prevented me from ever feeling lost. I do think it would have helped me if I’d Googled up a map, but I don’t think readers will need to do any research beyond that unless they have a desire to do so.

The characters, I think, are one of the real strengths of the book. Each one is unique and realistic. The fact that most have names resembling the boroughs they represent was also helpful for keeping track of who was who, and I think that enabled the author to introduce them in quick succession, keeping things fresh and interesting and giving every character their own time to shine. I especially liked that Bronca, the avatar for the Bronx, belonged to the Lenape tribe and represented the history of the city stretching back long before colonization. It truly felt like the entire city and its entire history were represented as best as the author was able to do through the characters and in the space she had to work with. I loved seeing the perspective of a young black man running from the police simply because he looks suspicious to them. I loved seeing Brooklyn defend her family in their beloved brownstones. I loved seeing Padmini, the avatar of Queens, trying to make sense of her new powers and her new awareness of extradimensional reality with a combination of complex math and the stories of her culture. I also loved to hate the villains, from the tentacle-infected white woman who films Manny and his roommate for just trying to enjoy a park to the Alt Artistes who doxx Bronca and her coworkers and stir up a horde of angry ultra-conservatives on the internet after their artwork is rejected. Everyone and everything felt very real and very modern, and I empathized with the characters deeply.

One character, though, I do want to point out in a slightly different way. Aislyn (pronounced in a way similar to “island” for Staten Island), caused me to have a few mixed feelings. I could definitely relate to her at times and at least understand her most of the time, and there were moments where her experience of sexism really rang true for me. But there were also moments that made me start to question how realistic the portrayal was. For example, while I have no doubt that a corrupt cop would question and attempt to provoke and ultimately arrest a Puerto Rican man who was only listening to New Age music in his car, there was something that felt off about the explanation he gave to Aislyn as his daughter. At first I wondered if this was simply a moment of truth being stranger than fiction and myself being fortunate enough to have never personally met people whose racism is so extreme, but I had no such difficulties with the equally (if not more) extreme Alt Artistes.

The difference, I think, is that we primarily see the Alt Artistes through the eyes of the people they’re attacking, while Aislyn’s father is seen through the eyes of a character who’s supposed to share a majority of his prejudices. The experiences of the victims had the ring of truth for me, while I found myself unable to comprehend how Aislyn’s father had developed the attitudes he had or how they seemed right to him. And I wished I could have.

I’ll also mention that Aislyn’s family holds to more Irish-ness than I’ve seen with any Irish Americans I personally know, but I’m chose to give the book the benefit of the doubt and assume her family has gone through more effort to preserve their heritage than mine has. Perhaps, I found myself thinking, her father is even in the first generation born to Irish immigrants (for me it was my grandfather). Or maybe there’s a stronger Irish American community on Staten Island than here in suburban Wisconsin. The references to Catholicism and many other cultural representations read as accurate to me, after all, even if not entirely immersive. The one exception is that it seemed odd that Aislyn mentions at one point that she learned some Gaelic as a child. My experience of visiting Ireland indicated to me that the Irish seem quite serious about calling their language Irish. But for all I know it wasn’t always that way or it isn’t that way across the board and Aislyn happened to learn from someone who would refer to it that way. Or I’m the one who’s mistaken. I fully admit that I’m not an expert.

Anyway, even if it does turn out that the author chose the name Aislyn first because it was the closest she could find to “island” and she then did research after (which to me would explain why the text has to explicitly state that her name isn’t pronounced in the traditional Irish way), at least it would be refreshing that the white character is the one who shows the limitations of developing a character that way. Unless this is true for other characters as well and I’m just comparatively ignorant. Always a possibility, although I hope that’s not the case because there are a number of sensitivity readers and experts on other cultures credited in the acknowledgments. I wish I could speak more on this, but I know my limitations. I would instead advise you to read what other reviewers have to say, as I’m sure many of them speak from their own experiences.

But I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the one thing that caused mixed feelings during an otherwise fantastic read. Honestly I feel like I could go on about this book forever. There are so many great moments that made me laugh or pump my fist or feel genuinely frightened. The fantasy elements are fresh and fascinating. The worldbuilding is spectacular. The characters have depth. The plot has twists and turns and leaves you asking some deep questions about ethics and social division and the state of the world we live in. There are so many details I could go into, but I don’t want to spoil the best parts of the book for those who want to read it for themselves. I will say that, as a writer, this book inspired me to write. And that is one of the highest compliments that I can give. I feel obligated to acknowledge that this book may not be for everybody, simply because there will always be someone who doesn’t care for this particular genre or won’t enjoy its particular writing style or have a desire to avoid certain types of content (swearing, racial slurs, depictions of racism and xenophobia and homophobia and sexual assault), but if you do like books of this kind, I can definitely give you my recommendation. I hope that you enjoy it!

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