The City We Became (Great Cities #1) by N. K. Jemisin
Published by Orbit Books
Adult, Urban Fantasy, Science Fiction
Release Date : March 24th 2020
In Manhattan, a young grad student gets off the train and realizes he doesn’t remember who he is, where he’s from, or even his own name. But he can sense the beating heart of the city, see its history, and feel its power.
In the Bronx, a Lenape gallery director discovers strange graffiti scattered throughout the city, so beautiful and powerful it’s as if the paint is literally calling to her.
In Brooklyn, a politician and mother finds she can hear the songs of her city, pulsing to the beat of her Louboutin heels.
And they’re not the only ones.
“Don’t sleep on the city that never sleeps, son, and don’t fucking bring your squamous eldritch bullshit here.”
The City We Became is a love letter to New York and to cities all over the world, to the culture that has progressed and grown with time, to the people that have lived and survived in it, and the greatest urban fantasy I’ve ever read.
In 2021, a short story I found on TOR’s website that I immediately devoured. This short story is The City Born Great by N. K. Jemisin. Lo and behold turns out this short story is the bare bones of N. K. Jemisin’s urban fantasy duology that has sat on my bookshelf for over a year, The City We Became. Knowing this got me excited to read the novel with high expectations and upon finishing my expectations are well met.
The City We Became is an urban fantasy with a mix of science fiction set in the city of New York. In this world, cities are living entities with a beating heart that grow from years of cultivation in culture and strong identities of its denizens. New York is a new born city that recently picked their avatar but during the birth something went horribly wrong. A sinister extraterrestrial being has interrupted the birth using new tricks that the other great cities didn’t expect.
Each city’s birth is different and new every time. It is no different for New York as the city split itself into six avatars representing the five boroughs of New York: Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, and Staten Island; and one primary avatar. Each borough’s avatar are real residents of New York that have been hand picked to defend the city from attacks of the elusive enemy. But first they must find each other, come up with a plan, and overcome their differences for New York. Though their enemy will stop at nothing to cut them at every turn.
“This is the lesson: Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.”
Looking at all my books there are a handful of urban fantasy books in the list. Almost all of these books are fantasy books that are set in an urban setting, which is the main reason why it’s called an urban fantasy. The City We Became is one of a few books that reimagines the city not just as a setting but as characters in the story. These major cities take the form of an avatar, the living embodiment of a city, representing the signature characteristic of that city.
For example the five boroughs of New York City : Manhattan is the borough where most of the Wall Street offices are, where money moves, and Manny’s powers manifest with anything relating to money or anything iconic about Manhattan; Brooklyn, home of some the most famous rappers in America, the avatar is a former MC. She uses her ability to write rhymes and her feel of rhythm as her weapon; Bronx is a lesbian artist Native American in her early sixties that trust nobody and tough as nails; Queens is a South Asian daughter of an immigrant family that is smart, adorable, and burning with the fight of the borough; Staten Island is an isolated young woman that is a product of environment she grew up in, close minded and easily influenced.
The other characters as well who are the avatars of other great cities such as Sao Paulo and Hong Kong also have distinct characteristics that embodies the city and their people. All these characters are unapologetically queer, incredibly diverse, and very well fleshed out. The individuality of each character is apparent on page, they all have their own voices that are just so THEM. Managing this many characters isn’t an easy feat but Jemisin does it with ease and finesse.
Though being an Indonesian myself I do not know all of the references Jemisin included throughout the story, I still enjoyed reading about it. Mainly because New York City is a place that I want to visit in my lifetime. All that aside readers will be treated with exciting details of history, culture, and geographical hot spots of New York City. Not just the usual touristy places but the places where history isn’t publicly known if readers aren’t attuned with the city.
“Come, then, City That Never Sleeps. Let me show you what lurks in the empty spaces where nightmares dare not tread.”
What makes the story stand out as well is that it is set in modern times of our world. The absolute excellence of Jemisin’s ability in writing to build a reimagined modern world, a city that they literally live in, weaving in an antagonist inspired by lovecraftian eldritch horror taking various forms of wickedness. The cultural references and historical context is written with utmost care and respect of a New Yorker for New York. The love Jemisin feels for New York bleeds through the characters, the world, and Jemisin’s writing.
While the city is the embodiment of a city, the enemy is the embodiment of a white out correction tape. By this I mean, an antagonist that champions uniformity, despises culture, diversity, and change in general. The attacks unleashed on the city are unlike any other fantasy book I’ve read such as gentrification, capitalism, white supremacy and so on. The battle scenes are hands down my favorite scenes in the book, as they incorporate vivid descriptions of identity and culture of a city in a game-like take down style that is equally satisfying and seething with excitement. I read a taste of the battle scenes in the short story version, it made me shed a few tears. Jemisin’s masterful ability in writing such addictive and electrifying prose will get readers heart pumping from start until the end.
“The city is different, because yesterday it was just a city, and today it is alive.”
The City We Became is an urban fantasy that is dripping with originality, heart pumping concrete jungle adventuring, diverse characters shining with personality, a balanced modern world that readers will free fall into laced with fantastical elements and lovecraftian inspiration, and a cross universe warfare that is epic in scale. This is the kind of book that is a work of art dedicated to Jemisin’s love of New York. Jemisin’s writing is colourful, incredibly vivid, filled with culture and history of the city.
It is a book I will recommend to people that want to dip their toe into adult fantasy for the first time. Even though it is a story that incorporates layers upon layers of world building, Jemisin writes an accessible story for any reader to sink their teeth into. The modern setting also would give a realistic note that can make future readers feel a sense of familiarity so they don’t need to remember a complex glossary while reading.
About the Author
N(ora). K. Jemisin is a New York Times-bestselling author of speculative fiction short stories and novels, who lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. In 2018, she became the first author to win three Best Novel Hugos in a row. She has also won a Nebula Award, two Locus Awards, and is a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.
Her short fiction has been published in pro markets such as Clarkesworld, Tor.com, WIRED, and Popular Science; semipro markets such as Ideomancer and Abyss & Apex; and podcast markets and print anthologies. Her novels, a novella, and two short story collections are out now from Orbit Books. Her novels are represented by Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency.
She is an emeritus member of the Altered Fluid writing group. In addition to writing, she has been a counseling psychologist and educator, a hiker and biker, and a political/feminist/anti-racist blogger. Although she no longer pens the New York Times Book Review science fiction and fantasy column called “Otherworldly” (which she covered for 3 years), her reviews can still be found online.