“I live the city.” – NK Jemisin
I was first drawn to The City We Became because of NK Jemisin. I loved The Broken Earth series and couldn’t wait for her next book to arrive. And when it did, I knew I would love it too. Very different from the Broken Earth trilogy, The City We Became explores not only a New York born from the people who inhabit it, but a force that’s determined to keep people of color down. Before diving in, I’ll share my content warning. There are also many spoilers in this review. I tried to keep it to the need-to-knows before you dive into the story, but I couldn’t hide everything.
CW: This book contains racist depictions for the sake of the story. They were pretty difficult for me to read, so I wanted to note that because it will be frustrating for those who it affects. I will also mention there is a Neo-Nazi in this story as well (and from my personal experience on Long Island most definitely exist in real world New York). This book also has sexual harassment, domestic and verbal abuse, and alcoholism.
First off, the love letter to New York. As a native New Yorker who grew up on Long Island but spent weekends in the city, I knew my expectations were already high. I’ve read so many love letters to New York and while they were all fine, it was always some other person’s experiences with New York. New York on the Upper West Side. New York in SoHo. New York on Fifth Avenue. And these are fine parts of the city, but they weren’t my city.
My city was Queens for a while. And so was Brooklyn. I lived in New York for a total of six months under a sublet and was kicked out because our youthful friends would come over and bother too many of the older folks already living in these apartment buildings. I would visit Bronx from time to time because I went to Fordham University and I took classes on campus. I even went to Staten Island a few times because my only friends who had a house with a pool lived out there. When you live in the city and you know someone with a pool, you go wherever that pool may be. Even to Staten Island.
Which is why I loved NK Jemisin’s love letter to this city. It captured the entire city from borough to borough. The faces of the characters matched the multiple cultures and people who live there. New York is where so many immigrants from so many countries made their passage. New York is where so many individuals found refuge in the small communities.
But this was more than just a love letter to New York. This was much more than that.
I love urban fantasies like this one; taking real world places and adding that magical element that takes the story to the next level. Quantum mechanics? Alternate realities? Non-Euclidean geometry? Sign me the heck up! The City We Became is literally what this book is about; the birth of a great city. The characters introduced are each representatives of a borough. Their job was to find each other and then find the primary avatar; the great New York City. Because there’s a big threat that’s already settling plans in the city. There’s something bigger about to be born and terrorize baby New York. I don’t want to give any more away, but the way that it moves is so insidious and evil that it literally scared me.
“Representative” feels dual in this book because not only are these people representatives of their borough, but they are also representatives of people of color. Bronca is Native American from the Lenape tribe. Manny is a light skinned Black man with a dark past coming to New York for an opportunity to make something of himself. Brooklyn is a dark skinned Black woman who had a past as an MC and now works as a politician. Queens is a young Indian girl studying tech in hopes of helping her family out back home. And these aren’t even everyone. There’s also gay representation, trans representation, Asians, Latinx, and white. If there was one thing I didn’t like about the love letters to New York, it was that they left out everyone who lived in it. The multiple faces of color you would see on an average day is far more than I see now in my little town in California.
While this book is most definitely a science fiction novel or an urban fantasy (whatever you want to call it), it’s also a book on racist ideas in all of us. In the story, we’re introduced to our antagonist; the Woman in White. She’s not named until the end of the book, but she infects New Yorkers. She places her “tendrils” into people nudging something out of them.
There’s no real name given to these tendrils, but it shows up in places and on people in a way that can only be described as white superiority. This self appears to be the racist ideas that root into everyone. Based off of prejudices, stereotypes, and the like, you see Jemisin’s characters do battle with these people. It’s the white woman in the park who threatens to call 911. It’s the alt group that spreads hate on the Internet and through “art.” It’s the unassuming kid who looks normal, but strategically places tattoos of white supremacy across his skin. It’s the bank telling someone their apartment building has been foreclosed to make room for some gargantuan high rise of outrageously expensive condos. It’s the police officers you believe to be good, but will gladly put a kid doing nothing in jail on account of suspicious behavior.
And NK Jemisin is unapologetic. She dives straight into the racist ideas that we see everyday. She even notes HP Lovecraft and the racist remarks he made about people of color. The number of Lovecraft references in this book is pretty high. I’m not a reader of Lovecraft, so I had to google a lot of things Jemisin brought up and almost everything was linked to HP Lovecraft in some way.
The only issues I had with this story was that the ending was abrupt. I know this is a trilogy and this isn’t the end of the story, but I wasn’t a fan of how it ended. Maybe it’s because I’m a New Yorker and we all know New Jersey doesn’t count.
I keep thinking about this book. Seriously, I can’t think about anything else because NK Jemisin brings so many concepts and ideas and subtext to her story that you can’t help but to think about it all the time. The science fiction stuff will make you think, but so will the way its presented. The city these folks became and what they fight for feels so real. This book was timely and I don’t know if Jemisin knew that by the time this book released we would be living in a pandemic world learning about systemic racism and fighting injustice. But somehow, she knew.
Rating: 4.5 stars