CIty We became

‘The City We Became’ by N.K. Jemisin: A Book Review

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What can I say about The City We Became? I wanted to read it because I love New York City, but I was a little worried because of comparisons to Neil Gaiman and China Mieville. These are two authors that are acclaimed and adored but leave me a little cold. I love Jemisin’s other works, but perhaps I should leave this urban fantasy alone?

I’m so glad I didn’t. The City We Became is everything I wanted it to be and more. It’s a wonderful wonderful book and, in a year that was been excellent for fiction, I’m sure it’s going to finish as my top choice in the GeekDad end-of-year round-up.

What Is The City We Became? 

Set in modern-day New York, The City We Became is the first book in the “Great Cities” series. (I only realized it was a series after finishing book one) It should be stressed that the events of The City We Became are more or less entirely self-contained, they just fit into a wider world tapestry. 

The conceit of the book is that cities have personalities and that these personalities have avatars that defend them from an alien cosmic force. Cities, in this mythology, “awaken.” They have done so throughout history. When a city awakens, the process of doing so calls a peculiar being from another dimension. This being aims to devour the fledgling consciousness before it can reach anything like maturity. 

As the novel opens, New York has woken. (Considering the size and importance of New York throughout history, it isn’t clear to me why this has taken so long, but perhaps I missed something.) New York is unusual in that it is not a single city but a city made of 5 distinct parts: the Boroughs. As a result, the city has multiple avatars to defend its existence.

And this is where the novel’s genius lies. Each avatar of a Borough has a distinct personality, much as each Borough of the city is different from the others. Each one has special powers and skills associated with that personality. The most obvious (and least spoiler-y) of these is that Manhattan’s power resides in money and commerce. 

Set against the Boroughs is another mysterious avatar. That of the powerful cosmic being bent on consuming New York. Can the Boroughs find each other, work out their differences, and save the city?

Why Read The City We Became?

It is said (or was when I was younger, I don’t know if the school of thought is still accurate) that Tolkien created Middle Earth in order to give England its own mythology, similar to that of the Norse. In this age of interconnectedness, such fables feel more distant than ever. Legends of a bygone age. 

Yet, as a species, we still crave the creation of stories, whether they be written, spoken, or through film. Jemisin taps into this craving with The City We Became. She takes the melting pot of New York City, personifies it, and uses its shared history, the roots of its many cultures to create new modern legends. The effect is breathtaking. 

It’s hard for me to overstate just how good The City We Became is. The mythology Jemisin creates makes for compulsive and addictive reading. Each of the avatars are fascinating characters and when they interact with one another the magic really starts to happen. 

The trials and tribulations in the book are enthralling. The book is steeped in otherness yet remains grounded in real-world issues and dilemmas. It does everything good sci-fi/fantasy should do. It allows you to escape into another world, whilst prompting you to think a little deeper about the world in which we live. The City We Became is captivating from the first page until last.

The villain of the piece is both cosmic and unearthly, yet appears grounded, often sensible. She’s not inherently over the top; she doesn’t swing from the top of the Empire State Building. Instead, she oozes menace and insincerity. She’s exactly the kind of character that you love to hate. I found myself wanting to shout at the book in frustration such were her dastardly manipulations. 

I had no idea when I started reading the book that it was part of a trilogy. Yet, it was clear that this story is part of bigger mythology (much like The Lord of the Rings)A couple of side characters help out, avatars from other cities. They refer to previous awakenings, mishaps, and a shadowy council. I’m desperate to know what happened to London!

Whilst the story at the center of The City We Became is largely completed over the course of the novel, the ideas contained within it could span countless more novels. A cursory Google search suggests that book two is by no means imminent (there doesn’t even seem to be a title knocking around). I can’t wait to find out where we are going next but I guess I’m going to have to be patient! 

If you want to pick up a copy of The City We Became, you can do so here, in the U.S., and here, in the UK. (As a random aside, the cover has a cool interactive Google Lens feature; the first of its type I’ve seen.)

If you enjoyed this review, you can check out my other book posts, here. 

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