Wednesday, April 22, 2020

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: The City We Became by NK Jemisin

The City We Became is the latest novel from multi-Hugo Award Winner, NK Jemisin, one of my favorite SciFi/Fantasy writers since I got back into SF/F reading 6 years ago.  Her Inheritance Trilogy was one of the first series I read since getting back into the genre and immediately made me want more, and of course each novel in her Broken Earth trilogy won the Hugo Award for Best Novel.  And here Jemisin comes with her newest work, a novel taking place in (and placing central focus upon) the city around which I've grown up, and well, I could hardly be more excited about it.  And well, I enjoyed The City Born Great, the Hugo Nominated short story which essentially birthed this novel - and more or less serves as the novel's prologue.

And The City We Became is pretty great, a novel which spoke especially to me as a born New Yorker, but will definitely also speak to others without such familiarity with the 5 boroughs.  Jemisin once again, through a world more recognizable as our own, speaks to the modern issues facing ordinary people through this story, and her dialogue and characters are again really strong - especially as the personified versions of parts of this setting.  Jemisin manages to combine fun characters and moments with serious themes and fantasy concepts to make another winner of a novel, even if I'm not sure it quite measures up to some of her other top works.

Note:  The City We Became is the start of a new trilogy, but the novel can be read as a stand-alone novel, complete with a satisfying ending (unlike her The Broken Earth trilogy, where each novel left the story incomplete until the conclusion).

-------------------------------------------------Plot Summary--------------------------------------------------------
Oh no the hell you don't, snarls New York City, as its Avatar, a scrawny black homeless boy faces off across the city with a tentacled monster, a being in White, the Enemy, who wishes to crush all the diversity that makes NYC so great.  And in a great clash that shakes the city, its streets and its bridges, the boy knocks the Enemy back, so that NYC can awaken in full.

And then the Avatar disappears, his strength exhausted, leaving the still only half-awake city defenseless against the Enemy's regroup.  Nearly defenseless, but not completely.

For at that moment, five individuals will find something awaken within them, a power connecting them to a part, a borough, of the city.
A man from elsewhere, traveling into the City for school, will find he no longer remembers who he is, but he feels and embodies the power of Manhattan.
A black woman - former rapper turned politician - will feel the music returning to her head with all its power.
A young immigrant, desperately hoping to renew her visa, will find strength in the diversity of Queens.
A sheltered white woman, afraid of differences, will feel a connection to an island that is often forgotten.
And a native soon to be grandmother, devoted to the Arts in the Bronx, will understand everything and be forced to admit there's no running from the fight any longer.

These five represent parts of the soul of New York City, and with the Enemy, the Woman in White, coming to try and smother NYC before it can fully awaken, it will be up to them to realize the potential of their beings to defend and proclaim the NYC's unique power....before its too late.
The City We Became is told over sixteen or so chapters (not including a prologue, a coda, and a few interludes) during which we generally - interludes aside - follow one or more of the various incarnations of the boroughs of New York.  Jemisin lives currently in Brooklyn and has lived in NYC* for about half of her life, and you can feel that in her understanding of how NYC works in all its boroughs.  If there's one complaint about this book it's that the boroughs aren't monolithic distinct entities like they have to be here to some extent - for example, Queens isn't the only borough of immigrants and I don't think of it as passive like its avatar is here - but how Jemisin describes them is still pretty damn accurate.

*New Yorker note:  the "City" (capital "C") refers to Manhattan.  The city (lower case "c") can refer to all of New York City, but for the sake of clarity for the rest of you, I'll use NYC for the whole of New York and "City" for Manhattan, as I do in ordinary speech.

I'm getting the cart before the horse here with this review, so let me back up and explain: in this world, each of the boroughs of New York is incarnated within a single person, and those people are our main characters.  Each character inhabits the characteristics of their borough, even if they aren't necessarily from their own borough.  So Manhattan is a queer man who came to the City and lost his memory - not unwillingly, as he inwardly wanted to become someone different than who he was - and whose charm and appearance makes everyone think he's one of them; Queens is an young immigrant on a visa who lives in a tenement alongside other immigrants of different cultures; Brooklyn is a black woman who was once a famous rapper and who has gown up to become a loving mother, a city councilwoman, and a small time landlord of a pair of brownstones; the Bronx, the loud spoken fiercely defensive worker at an art gallery, who takes pride in her native heritage and defends the borough from those who would try to fight against diversity; etc.  They all fit their boroughs really well - as much as possible see above - which makes working together not exactly easy.

But work together they must, because of whom the enemy is.  As with The Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin is not exactly subtle: the enemy is a Cthulhu-esque monster made up of the very ideas that Lovecraft would have embodied - that different is bad, that anything that promotes diversity is garbage, and that conformity and Whiteness should remain the dominant mode of society, even one as multicultural as New York.  The Enemy, represented not coincidentally as the "Woman in White", notes at one point that she only exaggerates beliefs and tendencies already there: so you have a white woman deciding to videotape and call police on two non-white young men in the park just for being non-white, or a white neo-nazi who befriends the racist father of Staten Island and attempts to rape her in her own home - these people are real and around us, and subject to these tendencies already, tendencies that would smother a city from truly coming into its own.

And these tendencies can be hard for those raised in them to break away from, as we see here with the young woman who is the incarnation for Staten Island, who has been taught racism from a father she inwardly knows is bad but can't quite slip free of despite it all.  It's a fascinating exploration using the real world characteristics of SI by Jemisin, and her role in the plot is almost the most interesting, being surprising but real at the same time.  Jemisin at one point suggests that this may change going forward but for now, Staten Island stands a bit apart, just as in the real world and it helps drive the conflict quite well.

Overall, this story of New York City feels so utterly true and real, with such great writing of it all by Jemisin - her dialogue and mastery of setting remains topnotch, and will both make you feel and crack up repeatedly - all the way through its ending.  It's an ending that's really satisfying, but also makes me wonder really where Jemisin will take things from here: the rest of the trilogy can go in some very different directions and I look forward to seeing where they go.  In honesty, I'm not sure I'd consider this on the same level as The Broken Earth or Inheritance, but some of that may be more in just how its hard to compare those to something so real and personal around me.  It's still really really good and I can't wait to see where Jemisin takes it from here. 

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