I broke one of my own rules in reading N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, and I am so glad I did.
As I’ve already said, I make it a general practice not to read a book in a series that’s not finished. I hate books that don’t end in a satisfying way, and a lot of books that are in series set up sequels by making their climaxes cliffhangers (hello, The Fellowship of the Ring!). Then, too, if there’s a time gap between the first book’s getting published and the next one’s coming out, it’s hard to remember the important details from one book to the next (a common criticism for George R. R. Martin and the Song of Fire and Ice series; how long has it been since the most recent book?). If the whole series is finished, then I can be sure I can go from book one immediately to book two and be satisfied.
And yet, here we have The City We Became, which makes no pretenses of being a standalone book. Given the plot of the series (which I’ll get to), there’s no way Jemisin could have written the whole thing in one volume. The book just came out last year, so the odds that the next book would be available to read when I finished this one were pretty slim (and the sequel isn’t out yet, nor, as far as I can tell, will it come out in the near future). By my own practices, I should have left this book alone till the trilogy was finished, and yet I couldn’t wait. The concept was so intriguing I had to try it, and the biggest problem with first books in trilogies (the ending) turned out to be no problem at all.
The concept of the book is audacious. Cities, it turns out, can be living entities. Not all cities do this, but some cities with sufficient life to them can break through different realities and come to life. When a city comes to life, a human being (or multiple human beings) act as its avatars, embodying the city in the world. A newborn city is vulnerable to attacks from an outside enemy (this is one of the brilliant parts): a Lovecraftian reality that hates everything cities stand for and wants to destroy them. Generally, once a city is actually past its birth throes, it’s safe from this enemy, but in the case of New York City, the subject of this book, the rules no longer seem to apply.
Pause here to appreciate the brilliance of having a city stand against the whole Lovecraftian mythos. It’s well known that H. P. Lovecraft, while the father of a lot of modern horror, wrote some amazingly problematic work. He was a racist, anti-semitic, xenophobic and misogynistic person,and that comes through in his writings loud and clear. Numerous modern writers have engaged with his work on that level: Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff, for instance, and Carter and Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard. I can’t remember a book that takes on Lovecraft so directly, aiming at his fear of the different, fear of the melting pot, fear of all the things that make cities vibrant and alive, by having his world trying to destroy cities at their birth.
But this isn’t just a high concept book. It has terrific characters and a plot that never lets up, never lets you off the hook for a moment. It’s a page-turner extraordinaire, with vivid settings, tons of action and even a fair amount of humor. I couldn’t put it down and devoured it in two days.
There is one young man who is the avatar for the whole city of New York, who fights off an attack from the Enemy as soon as the city starts being born, but is so damaged in the fight he has to go into hiding, waiting for the avatars of the boroughs to come and help him.
And then there are the avatars, people who were ordinary enough as exemplars of their respective boroughs but given powers and vision to make them much more once they become avatars. Manny, who’s the avatar for Manhattan, is a young African American man who’s lost his pre-avatar memory but knows what he used to do was inflict violence on other people. Brooklyn, the avatar for Brooklyn, is a former rap star who is now a city councilwoman, an African American woman who lives in a brownstone with her aging father and her teenage daughter. Padmini, an immigrant graduate student who’s devoted to math, is the avatar for Queens, and is having trouble dealing with this whole avatar for the borough and fighting against the Enemy to save the whole city concept. And then there’s Bronca, my personal favorite character, an older Lenape woman who’s a lesbian, running an arts center in the Bronx; she’s the elder among the group, the one who has a deeper sense of what’s going on and what has to happen. The most troublesome of the bunch is Aislin Houlihan, the avatar of Staten Island (of course): she’s white (again, of course), daughter of a racist police officer, and afraid of going to The City at the same time she’s drawn to it. While each of the avatars is approached and/or attacked by the enemy in the form of the Woman in White (more about her in a moment), Aislin is the only one who finds her sympathetic, the only one who’s willing to betray her city for her relationship with the Woman in White.
While our protagonists (not just the avatars but their friends and companions, all vividly brought to life) are fun and interesting, filled with the attitudes you would associate with their boroughs, the Enemy (who is also, as it turns out, the avatar for a city, a different kind of city, and no, I’m not going to spoil it for you but if you’re up on your Lovecraft you’ll probably guess what her city is) is wonderful, powerful and creepy, going from attempts to seduce the different avatars into working with her to attempting to destroy them, directly or through her minions. How her minions become her minions, how you can tell if someone’s been infested by her, is creepy and worthy of Lovecraft himself. She is scary in herself and scary in what she’s trying to do. You want your protagonists to have a worthy adversary, someone powerful enough to wreak havoc but someone who might still be able to be defeated by the protagonists, and the Woman in White is definitely a worthy adversary.
Oh, and the ending? Perfectly satisfying. Even knowing that this is the first book in the trilogy, we are not left hanging, and what was raised here is resolved, with still plenty of hints about what’s to come. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.
If you love New York City in all its weirdness and its contradictions, you’ll find a kindred spirit in N. K. Jemisin, who clearly knows and loves the city with a passion and who brings a great sense of place to this marvelous, thrilling book. Give yourself the pleasure of The City We Became. You won’t regret it.