The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

When a city gets large enough, great enough, big enough, it is born. And when it is born, one person is chosen to be the avatar of the city. But when it is New York’s time to be born, things don’t exactly go as they always have. Instead of getting one avatar, New York gets five – one for each borough. The five boroughs have to wake the primary avatar if New York isn’t going to suffer a cataclysmic stillbirth, and the city’s interdimensional cosmic enemies are working with both human and inhuman powers to end New York for good.

The Story

This came out of a short story which has been repurposed as the first chapter of the novel, and what makes it interesting structurally (to me) is the fact that the story and the characters are introduced at a different pace. There are 16 chapters in the novel, plus an epilogue, and the first six chapters introduce the city’s primary avatar and each of the boroughs’ avatars. This means that the first third of the novel is introducing us to new characters, while growing the threat against New York and heightening the need to solve these characters’ particular problem. In many ways, the plot is direct and uncomplicated (not a bad thing!), but the structure works much as the Lovecraftian Enemy – sprouting tendrils all over the city, bringing us individual stories and episodes that eventually weave together into one great monster. The result is a book that doesn’t have a lightning pace (again, not a bad thing!) and has the time to focus on characters and themes.

Thematically, it’s a book about racism and belonging, and it is so a book about New York. It’s not the glitzy whitewashed New York that we see in a lot of urban fantasy novels or tv sitcoms. It made me wish I’d been to New York, that I’d experienced the quintessential New York-ness that the avatars exude. It asks the question: what makes New York New York, and what makes a real New Yorker? The Lovecraftian monster trying to prevent a healthy birth of the city uses racism as a way to attack the avatars of the boroughs, as all but one of the avatars is a person of color, and I appreciated that it flipped the usual thematic script of black=darkness=bad, with creepy white tendrils trying to overtake and consume everything in the city.

The Worldbuilding

…is a great example of a soft magic system. The avatars of the city can fight their Enemy and invoke magic by calling on the nature of the city, and particularly their own boroughs. This brings a kind of magic to New York all of its own, highlighting the personality of different areas of the city. I appreciated that, again, as someone who’s never been to New York who usually sees one sanitized part of it. It was really cool to see New York’s different pieces expressed in different terms through magic. At the same time, the magic doesn’t work because it follows a set of rules stated in the text. It works because it follows thematic rules and it doesn’t break anything set down in the text. I always admire soft magic systems that work, because I struggle to write soft magic systems personally. Things are easier for me when there are stated rules, and I think soft magic systems have the potential to be so creative.

The Characters

Jemisin is one of those authors who can make an unlikeable character sympathetic. We don’t get a lot of info on, say, Manny, except we think he used to be quite dangerous – but we sympathize with him all the same. Aislynn is such a fucking idiot, and I think it every time I’m in her chapter – but she’s also totally real, and in fact sympathetic. Her upbringing is mixed with her choices both to show how she got to the place where she is, and to say how she continues to make choices that affect the standing of New York. It can be a risk sometimes to write multiple POV novels, because if a reader finds one viewpoint boring it’s harder to get in to the whole book – but Jemisin never makes her characters boring. that’s for sure.

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