Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Microreview [Book]: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

Cosmic horror, invisible parasites, sentient city avatars and a whole lot of New York attitude collide in this accomplished new trilogy opener

Jacket Art by Arcangel, Design by Lauren Panepinto
The City We Became is the first in N.K. Jemisin's new urban fantasy trilogy, and the first where the "proof of concept" short story (a technique Jemisin says she has used for her previous universes as well) picked up a lot of hype before the novels came around. "The City Born Great", originally published on Tor.com, was a Hugo finalist in its eligible year and here it forms the prologue of an expanded, more complicated version of the "birth" of New York as a living city, coming together Captain-Planet style from the representatives of its five boroughs to protect the version of the city which they hold collectively dear.

I hope the idea of living cities, born once their locations reach a certain critical mass of people and culture and identity, makes sense to you, because there's not much more explaining within The City We Became. While in its genesis story, New York's birth involves an epic one-off battle between its avatar, a homeless Black kid living simultaneously in the heart of the city and on the margins of its respectable society, The City We Became complicates that birth significantly, giving the avatar a partial victory but leaving him still weak while the cosmic horrors trying to destroy it are still on the move. Enter the Planete- sorry, the Boroughs: Manny, a grad student who forgets his previous identity while on the train in and is immediately thrust into a new supernatural role; Brooklyn, rapper turned politician; Bronca, a queer indigenous woman and art gallery owner; Padmini, representing Queens, a mathematical genius and recent immigrant from India stuck in a corporate finance job in order to fulfil her family's ambitions for her, and Aislyn, a sheltered white woman whose cop father has instilled in her some intense prejudices and a fear of the unknown. We follow the gang as they start to understand their new role and (mostly) come together over their shared enemy: a force represented by a changing Woman in White, who appears to be infecting the people of New York with cordyceps-like spores which compel them to lay the groundwork for a far more narrow-minded and unpleasant vision of the city.

The City We Became
took a while to warm up for me, perhaps because of the lack of connection or attachment I have to New York itself. The main characters, representing the different boroughs of the city, are all introduced through the mythology and culture of these respective neighbourhoods, and while it's all explained well enough to grasp on an intellectual level, I found it hard to care about their personalities as defined through those neighbourhoods, especially as almost all of them represent millions of people (sorry, Staten Island) and distilling each one into a single human personality is a hard sell indeed. Although there are plenty of universally recognisable human factors at play, some of the questions about New York City's specific identity and boundaries become central to the plot in ways it's hard to really feel the impact of. Luckily, the fact that these moments are backed up with human characters whose existing relationships and personalities are very much worth paying attention to even when their city-personifications don't mean much to an outsider, means that there's always something to root for. Bronca is the standout character here, whose relationships with her colleagues - particularly young Jersey City resident Veneza - and their artistic community is full of entertainingly sharp edges and fun scenes, and I would have loved to spend a little more time with Padmini and her neighbourhood, as she feels like the character who gets least to do this time around.

It's in the characterisation of the enemy forces that The City We Became's blend of the supernatural and the mundane really shines. The Woman in White, a mouthpiece that seems able to possess any woman in the city at any time in order to speak to our Heroes, is played both with an unknowable alien-ness and a very recognisable sense of white woman conviction in all of her beliefs (and her reception is quite different in dealing with Aislyn, the only white borough-avatar, compared to the others). And alongside highway-crushing tentacles and creepy invisible mushroom growths, the Woman's forces also include people whose agendas would be deeply unpleasant even without alien interference making them into the worst versions of themselves. The take-down of alt-right talking heads, represented by an artistic group attempting to get their hate-art displayed in Bronca's gallery and calling out "discrimination" when they refuse, is both hilariously on point and unpleasantly sinister in its portrayal of how much support these groups can get, and how far they can go. The corporate interests which threaten Brooklyn in particular provide a faceless counterpoint that's all-too-human, despite also being proof of how long the alien invasion has been planned. Although it veers into outright cosmic horror in its finale, there's something even more unsettling about the portrayals of human nature here, and Jemisin brings together a compelling microcosm of the social and cultural factors of New York in late-stage-capitalist-America, creating something unflinching in its look at power dynamics, race, class, queerness and (to a lesser extent) disability.

This being Jemisin, of course, the cosmic horror angle to The City We Became also has enormous stakes with no easy answers. While it's difficult to talk about without spoilers, and there is still a lot that remains to be explained in future books, the birth of New York, and the presence of living cities in general turns out to have repercussions that go well beyond maintenance of the water table and development of appropriate transport networks. The revelations about the city's place within a wider multiverse of beings, and what their actions mean in unknowable dimensions, provides the characters with an interesting but necessarily brief moment of introspection before they go back to the work of securing their own survival. It's a little surprising how far off the hook the characters seem to be by the end of this volume, given some of the precedents explained to them by older cities (São Paulo puts in further appearances after his role in "The City Born Great", and Hong Kong also shows up), but I have no doubt the reality of their new status is going to cause plenty more adventure, heartache and introspection for the gang as the series goes on.

The City We Became is a book by a master of her craft, and while its focus and story didn't grab me by the throat in the same way as the Broken Earth trilogy, this is still a fantastic opening to a new series with a lot of new elements to explore. I'm definitely ready to find out more about the wider forces at work here, and although New York is never likely to be more than a very occasional foreign holiday destination to me, the characters it becomes in this volume are people I would very much like to spend more fictional time with.

The Math
Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Fascinating blend of social factors and cosmic horror, especially on the antagonists' end

Penalties: -1 the borough-first personification takes a while to work its magic if you don't know your NYC

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Jemisin, N.K. The City We Became [Orbit, 2020]