What makes a city feel the way it does? Is it the art and the music? The people and how they view themselves? What about the infinite, minuscule details of the place, whether they are recognized or ignored completely? Three-time Hugo Award winner N.K. Jemisin shows us her version of the answers, and they add up to something bigger than the sum of its parts. In The City We Became, a magical novel of breadth and precision, Jemisin builds a version of New York City that is more than the borders of its boroughs. This New York is alive.
Cities, we learn, are like any other living organism. They are born, they develop, they get sick, they can die. Like a hive communicating through a shared consciousness, a city is sustained by everyone and everything in it. At a certain stage of life, cities awaken avatars, people who are attuned to this consciousness, able to understand it and, from time to time, channel its power.
Cities also have enemies. When a primordial evil arrives through space and time, hellbent on corrupting and destroying New York, the avatars of all five boroughs awaken to do battle—and fight off what could be the death of the city.
I’ve not read another book like this in years. Jemisin takes a concept that can be abstracted to the simplest of questions (What if cities were alive?) and wraps an adventure around it. That adventure takes center stage in the many scenes that read more like a superhero movie than a fantasy novel, such as when a towering Lovecraftian tentacle bursts from the river to destroy the Williamsburg Bridge. However, Jemisin’s most beautiful passages deliver attentive descriptions of New York’s melting pot of people. Her characters’ life experiences—racial, sexual, financial—bring perspectives that are deeply important to and often missing from contemporary literature, particularly in the fantasy genre.
Jemisin lives in Brooklyn, and it’s clear that New York has impacted her life in innumerable ways. I confess, I don’t know New York well myself, but reading this book left me thinking about my own city, how I’m connected to it and how far I would go to save it. To what parts of the whole have I contributed? If it were alive, what would it say?