The City We Became


N. k. Jemisin


Fantasy / Science Fiction


Date Reviewed:

November 3,2021

had seen several positive reviews for The City We Became - in the Seattle Times, in Washington Post, and NPR. Although I have not yet read The Broken Earth Trilogy, I know that each book in that trilogy won a Hugo award. So when I saw a copy of The City We Became on the library bookshelf, I snatched it up, expecting to discover an SF masterpiece. I was disappointed. Each evening, it got harder and harder to pick up the book to continue reading, and easier and easier to set it down again. Finally, around page 300, I realized that the book wasn't going to get any better. For 2 months, The City We Became sat untouched on my nightstand while I finished eight or ten more appealing books. Finally, it was due back at the library, no more renewals allowed, so I forced myself to trudge through the remaining pages. I knew I would never check this disappointing book out again.

The premise of the novel is interesting - a city can become alive. It identifies a human representative, which becomes the living embodiment of the newly born city. But that is about as far as explanations go. I kept waiting for an answer about what happens to the city when it is born - does crime go down? Are the citizens happier? What distinguishes a city from before it was born and afterwards? This is never answered. Why is New York City being born now? NYC has been around for 400 years, thriving and growing; what triggers the birth process? What do the human avatars who represent their city do, exactly? We learn that they are immortal (at least, as long as the city survives) and have magical powers. But what is their purpose? This is not explained either. We learn that in the Western Hemisphere, New York is only the second city to be born, after Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo? Why aren't such ancient cities such as Mexico City or Cuzco already alive? St. Augustine?

In the prologue, we meet an unnamed, homeless queer black teenager who becomes the avatar of New York City. Sao Paulo is there to guide him through New York's birth. This teenager successfully repels a feeble attack by the enemy, New York City is born, and then he goes to sleep and does not reappear again until the end of the novel.

We are introduced to Manny, who is the spirit of Manhattan. He is a mixed-race, queer student who has come to New York to study.

We meet Bronca. She is a middle aged, lesbian black woman who runs an art gallery in the Bronx. Her side kick is Veneza, another colored lesbian. Oddly, Veneza can see the tentacles and constructs of the enemy, even though they are only visible to human avatars - no one seems to notice this anomaly.

We meet MC Free, a middle aged black woman who once was a famous rapper but now she is a council woman in Brooklyn.

Padmini is a young Indian immigrant woman who embodies the spirit of Queens.

Aislyn is a white woman who has never left Staten Island. She loathes the avatars from the other boroughs, and sides with the enemy, even though one of humans under the sway of the enemy tries to rape her.

The enemy from the alternate dimension seems to be a giant white anemone, it has long, destructive tentacles that no one can see except the human avatars. To lead the attack on New York, the enemy has created Mrs White, who has pale white skin, white hair, and dresses all in white. Mrs White recruits humans to work for the alien cause - these are white supremacists and skin heads. Also, the enemy infects humans - people who have been subverted have white tentacles sticking out of the back of their neck or from between their fingers, though only the NY avatars can see these white tentacles. Sao Paulo sees a group of compromised humans in a park - and they are all wearing white! Hmm, it seemed like Jemisin was trying to make a point here - but whatever her message was, it was much too subtle for me to catch.

The enemy tries to stop cities from being born. It has tried before, but almost always loses when the city is born. NY is born, but this time the enemy isn't going to give up. Because this time things are different! Why are things different this time? No answer. At one point, the reader learns that the enemy has destroyed Pompeii, Tenochtitlán and Atlantis(!?). Looking at that list, it made the enemy seem pretty weak indeed - there are thousands of cities on Earth, and in a few thousand years, the enemy has only destroyed three (one of which is just a myth)? In fact, the enemy proves to be ineffectual. I think Jemisin was trying to create an alien horror that would inspire feelings of ominous dread. But when confronting the enemy, the NY avatars just summon their inner New Yorkness, and the tentacles and avatars are blown away. H. P. Lovecraft is mentioned in this novel ("he was such a racist he even hated the Portuguese!"), and despite loathing Lovecraft, I got the feeling Jemisin wanted to create something similar to the elder gods that lurk in Lovecraft's work. But Jemisin's enemy is more comic book that creepy. At the dramatic climax, the enemy explains how it is going to destroy our entire universe! But instead, the enemy tries to fly its own city, R'yleh in from it's dimension and drop it on top of New York city. I was puzzled by this - the enemy hates cities. Cities are where people get together, sharing ideas, energy and culture - and this leads to new inventions and new directions. For reasons unexplained, when humans have new ideas, it annihilates creatures in other dimensions by the billions. Huh? Human ideas are wiping out denizens in other universes? If cities are so bad, why does the enemy have its own city R'yleh? If the enemy is going to destroy our entire universe, why is it flying it's city here? I felt that little time had been spent on constructing a logical framework for this story. Anyway, when the humans that represent five boroughs gather around NY City, he wakes up and banishes the enemy with a wave of his hand.

Maybe people in New York do talk that way, but the constant swearing is really tiresome. The novel's pages have been carpet-bombed with F-bombs.

This is the first book in a new Great Cities Trilogy, but I will not be reading any additional volumes. I felt that The City We Became was poorly plotted, boring and full of unlikeable, foul-mouthed characters, and I am not interested in spending any additional time in their company.