#REVIEW: THE CITY WE BECAME, by N.K. Jemisin

I’ve only been to New York once. I was living in Chicago at the time, so it was probably fourteen or fifteen years ago now, and I was only there for a few days. I went to visit a girl, and I honestly wasn’t terribly interested in doing a lot of sightseeing with the limited amount of time we had, which I think disappointed her a little bit. She lived in Battery Park City, which is on the extreme southern tip of Manhattan (you could see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island from not far away from her apartment) and other than the travel needed to get to Manhattan from whatever airport I arrived in, I didn’t really see any of the other boroughs. We went to Central Park, visiting the Zoo and finding the apartment building and the church from Ghostbusters, so you can tell whose priorities were driving the few places we did visit. If I were to identify myself with a city it would still be Chicago, despite the fact that I’ve now been away from the city for longer than I lived there.

The City We Became is, in a lot of ways, Not for Me. Jemisin has described the book repeatedly as a love letter to New York City, and as someone who doesn’t know the city I don’t know that I was missing anything, necessarily, but I suspect New Yorkers will get more out of the book than I might have. Except maybe for Staten Islanders. I would love to know what people from Staten Island think of this book, actually. It will be fascinating to see if this book is greeted with the near-universal acclaim that her previous work and particularly her Broken Earth trilogy received; if you’re not familiar with her, you should be: she is the only author ever to receive the Best Novel Hugo award three years in a row, and she is, hands down, the single most important author working in science fiction and fantasy today. And this, while still certainly fantasy, is very different tonally and structurally from her previous work, to the point where I’m not entirely certain I’d have pegged it as a Jemisin book if I didn’t know she’d written it.

None of that, mind you, is a complaint. The City We Became is the first book of a new trilogy and the basic storyline is simple enough that you can cover it in a sentence: New York City comes to life (roll with it) and chooses five individuals to act as avatars of each of the five boroughs.

(Pauses to put Beastie Boys on; To the 5 Boroughs has always been my favorite of their albums.)

Anyway, the Beasties thing broke this into two sentences rather than the promised one, but: there are complications. Turns out the birth of a city is a somewhat fraught and dangerous process, and there are those who tend to oppose it when it happens. You may have heard of Atlantis, for example, which did not survive the birthing process. There are a handful of other living cities as well; the avatars of São Paulo and Hong Kong make an appearance. There’s also a hell of an Oh Shit moment at the very end when the true nature of what they’ve been calling the Enemy throughout the book is revealed; a more careful reader than me may figure it out in advance (I should have; minor spoiler: take the myriad Lovecraft references seriously) but it’s still a great moment.

This is not one to sleep on, y’all. Jemisin is a powerhouse of an author no matter what, and a project like this that she’s openly admitting is some of the most personal work she’s ever done is not something to be missed. Go pick it up.