Book Review: The City We Became by N.K.Jemisin

The City We Became Cover

Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.

But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin is a fierce and frenetic ode to community, diversity and urban life.

I first came across N.K. Jemisin three years ago and was immediately entranced by her writing. The Broken Earth series is one of my favorite science fiction fantasy trilogies of all time. Two years ago, I read N.K. Jemisin’s innovative short story collection How Long ’Til Black Future Month which includes ‘The City Born Great’, the seedling that led to The City We Became. Although I’m a country person at heart, I was intrigued by the idea of human avatars embodying a living, breathing city. Once again, Jemisin had tapped into something old and made it new.

“This is the lesson: Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.”

So I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of the novel and was lucky enough to track down a signed edition. It took me a while to start reading – partially because I didn’t want to damage the book. Also because I was slightly nervous about whether it would live up to expectation.

As with the Broken Earth series, the scope of The City We Became is mindbendingly vast. When cities reach a certain maturity, they are born into sentience, but hostile entities are trying to prevent this process from happening. In this first book in The Great Cities Trilogy, the birthing of New York is disrupted when the primary avatar or ‘soul’ is maimed by such a force. To save the city from being destroyed, five boroughs of New York must come together in human shape to protect the chosen one.

The novel has all the Jemisin hallmarks. It sparks with originality and is brilliantly written. Each character has their own identity which reflects the qualities of their borough. Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island are all portrayed in a rounded way – mirroring the diversity of New York. And the villain of the piece is also easily recognisable – a white, ancient creature armed with extreme wealth that wishes to impose uniformity upon the world.

The ticking-clock plot device drives the action, but as in all urban landscapes, the heroes have to content with many diversions. Invisible monsters and parasites prowl the city. Geographically it helps if you’ve visited New York (which we have), but the novel goes way beyond physicality. The City We Became is a thinly-veiled allegory for our times and because of this, it’s an intensely edgy read.

But edgy doesn’t mean dissatisfying. I was totally rooting for the characters at the end of the book and am intrigued to see how N.K. Jemisin develops the series. She has taken taken her passion, her anger, her frustration, her hope and has written it all into a book which captures where we are now – on the fulcrum of an ideological choice. We can choose to stay where we are and stagnate in the past or we can move forwards and embrace a more equal and meaningful future. At no time like any other, history will be what we make it. The City We Became takes us right to the front line.

Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
ISBN: 9780356512662
Number of pages: 448

You can buy the book here.

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