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

Let’s start by saying that this book is quite different from the author’s Hugo Award winning Broken Earth trilogy.  Those who liked her previous work may be disappointed, but they shouldn’t.  Objectively speaking, this is a much more mature work, with no good or evil, only different shades of gray.  There’s no angst and very little anger; instead there are characters who do what they must, at a personal and societal cost.  Ultimately, everyone is relatable to some degree, which makes the book a pleasure to read.

Cities can and will become sentient.  When they reach a certain size or maturity, they will be born.  Just before that, a human avatar of the city is designated, and this avatar then helps with the birth, and then takes care of the city until it can defend itself.  Cities in the process of being born are vulnerable to the Enemy from another dimension, which is bent on destroying such entities.  The avatar has supernatural powers, fueled by the city energy, and can wield entire neighborhoods as weapons, in a parallel universe, where the battle takes place.  If the avatar succeeds in defending the city, a megalopolis is born.  If he fails, the city is destroyed.  This was the fate of Atlantis, Sodom and countless others.

New York City is about to achieve sentience.  The avatar is a young homeless man who acts on instinct and the little training he received from the avatar of Sao Paulo, who was dispatched to train him.  New York is able to defend the city, but he does not win decisively, and the Enemy has still access to the city.  The avatar gets so exhausted that he falls into a magical coma, leaving the city undefended.  New York City is a special case, unlike others.  It requires a cohort of extra avatars, one for each neighborhood.  The Enemy has also changed its tactics, and so the outcome of the final battle is far from over.

There are five secondary avatars: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.  All five, including the primary avatar, ale people of color, so the Enemy creates its own avatar in the form of a white woman, which uses the most appropriate means to combat the five: white supremacy and gentrification.  She infects the minds of the weak and those with prejudices, and tweaks them to their maximum, to harass the avatars as they struggle to understand what they are, how to use their powers, or even find each other.  All five must get together at the hiding place of the primary avatar, to wake him and defeat the Enemy once and for all.  The white woman is trying to subvert or outright harm them.  She succeeds with Staten Island, a feeble-minded woman, who refuses to join the avatars.  At the last moment, however, New York City decides to cast Staten Island from its boroughs, replace it with Jersey City and designate a conveniently close avatar, with whose help they are able to wake up the primary avatar and avert a looming catastrophe.  The book ends with New York City saved, but Staten Island still under the shadow of the Enemy.

I liked this book on many levels.  The characters are far more likeable than in the Broken Earth trilogy, and they are far more ambiguous.  There is no strong moral compass: every decision will have catastrophic consequences regardless of the choice that’s being made.  And the visuals and set pieces are reminiscent of two of my favorite authors.

Let me start with the last point, as it is easiest for me to touch upon.  This book is unapologetically Lovecraftian.  Lovecraft is mentioned numerous times, and his city of R’lyeh actually plays a role in the story.  Lovecraft is subverted here by giving the unknown and unknowable cosmic horror a voice and motive.  This makes it less of a horror and more of a protagonist that one can sympathize with.  At certain points, I actually wondered whether the avatars were right in defending the city…  The second author whose influence I felt very strongly was Warren Ellis.  His comic books, in particular Authority and most recently The Wild Storm are felt from almost every page of The City We Became.  The set pieces are all there: super-augmented beings waging a secret war on a hidden enemy, in an urban setting, with general population not really knowing what’s happening but occasionally getting caught in the crossfire.  Many action sequences could be easily converted into one of these comic books.  Even though I’ve been in New York City a few times (I used to live 40 minutes away by train), I’m not familiar with it to the degree that I could feel its ambiance when reading the book.  Picturing a Warren Ellis comics helped in this regard tremendously.

The characters and their motivations are much more ambiguous than in Jemisin’s previous works.  In Broken Earth, the protagonist was ostensibly a woman with magic powers (later explained as bioengineered).  However, she was eminently unlikable from the beginning, and this was foreshadowing the fact that she was actually the antagonist: the real hero was her much more relatable former handler, who controlled her powers.  Here, we don’t get the same simple pointers of who is good and who is evil.  The avatars are simply human, with their positive and negative sides.  They are people who want to do good, but that doesn’t always turn out that way.  The white woman, the personification of the Enemy, is also sympathetic.  As the story progresses, she also reveals her motive: whenever a city is born, entire parallel universes are being destroyed.  In this regard, she acts as a multidimensional enforcer, albeit somewhat inefficient, given how many cities had already been born.  She chooses the path of lesser evil, sacrificing the population of a single metropolis, in order to save countless living beings in parallel universes.  It’s actually the avatars, in their act of self-preservation, who end up killing all those parallel universes.  One cannot blame them, either, as they are acting to save themselves and their families.

Ultimately, the only thing the story is attempting to blame is the means by which the white woman tries to achieve her goals.  Even this, however, if ambiguous.  Her two main weapons are white supremacy and gentrification.  The former takes the shape of people who are either weak-minded or have a predisposition to racism or xenophobia.  The Enemy invades their minds and strengthens their predisposition, to the point where they become brazen enough to openly attack the avatars.  Gentrification means repossessing or destroying old buildings or replacing established local restaurants with coffee shop chains.  Even those methods have a logical explanation, though: The Enemy is reacting to the avatars’ weaknesses.  All avatars are people of color, so white supremacy is the most obvious counterpoint.  And they get their energy and strength from the city, so destroying it and replacing with something generic is the best way to sap their power.  As is exposed in the book, the latter strategy is being employed by the Enemy worldwide, while the former is simply a reaction to the city’s choice of avatars.  One cannot fault the Enemy for employing such tactics.

If there is one thing to blame in the book, though, it’s the total lack of character development.  Staten Island, for example, offers the possibility of a wonderful redemption arc.  Instead, the author throws her to the wolf, so to speak.  Manhattan gets total amnesia when he arrives to New York City.  He is a blank slate, and he ends the book just as bland as when he started, despite the hints of an interesting backstory.  Brooklyn is just as static as Manhattan.  Bronx starts as an angry and combative old woman and ends as a slightly less angry and combative old woman.  The only character development Queens displays is a sudden change of heart towards the end of the book, explained through secondary school math that is completely unbecoming of this math prodigy avatar.  And speaking of a sudden change, the switch of Jersey City to stand in for Staten Island was so quick and poorly explained that it felt as if the author was rushed to finish the book.

The City We Became is not a book with a coherent or logical plot, and it doesn’t need to be.  It is about wonderfully ambiguous characters, all of whom deserve to win.  As a result, the reader may not experience much emotional investment into the book, and that’s for the better.  Sometimes it’s nice just to have a simple text to enjoy.  The book is also full of visuals that closely resemble those of other great authors, in particular H. P. Lovecraft and Warren Ellis.  This is one of those pleasant but somewhat bland reads that wouldn’t hurt or offend anyone, but will not leave a lasting impression, either.

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