This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin.
I love N. K. Jemisin's books, I love New York City, and I love this book about the soul and personification of New York. The City We Became
might just be my favorite book to be published in 2020. Tension, humor, great characters, with a guest appearance near and dear to me from Jersey City. I also got a little Wrinkle in Time
vibe. This book is apparently the beginning of a trilogy, but it is completely satisfying as a standalone novel. Read it and be happy. — Doug C.
N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became
is texting a little heart emoji wrapped around an extended middle finger to H. P. Lovecraft
’s iPhone in the afterlife. This imaginative and ferocious fantasy novel about the birth of New York City makes wily use of Lovecraftian tropes — tentacled creatures, sentient architecture, gaping holes into hellish dimensions — as well as Lovecraft’s well-known xenophobia and bigotry, to subvert the notion that New York is a white city, or that it can be saved by whiteness in any literal or metaphorical iteration. It’s a stunning coup that manages to place The City We Became
firmly in the urban fantasy and sci-fi canon while demonstrating the radical potential of the genre, in the hands of a brilliant writer like Jemisin, to expand the boundaries of old tropes and forms to make room for self-awareness, critique, and social justice.
The City We Became
is about what happens when a centuries-old city finally awakens into sentiency. In the novel’s urban cosmology, a newborn city requires an avatar to help birth and defend it; in this case, the avatar is a homeless, queer, Black youth whose exhausting work as the city’s “midwife” throws him into a coma. This emergency forces the city to awaken five additional avatars, one for each borough. Jemisin provides a diverse cast of avatars, spanning Black, interracial, Indigenous, and Asian perspectives, who embody each borough’s unique composite of historical and current cultural identities. The novel’s emphasis on multiethnic perspectives removes whiteness from the city’s identity almost entirely; tellingly, the sole exceptions are the racist Irish American woman representing Staten Island and the diabolical White Lady, a dimensions-hopping, minions-commanding creature who harnesses racism and gentrification in her attempts to thwart the newborn city.
The City We Became
addresses the themes of gentrification and cultural erasure on both mythic and everyday scales; for example, in his first encounter with the city’s enemy, the central avatar runs from two police officers who morph into a horrific beast. They’re not really cops, but to a Black teenager their menace isn’t all that different from the ordinary officers he avoids on a daily basis. The result of Jemisin’s blending of analogous existential problems is a “fierce, poetic, uncompromising [novel]” (Kirkus
) with all the beasts, banter, and mind-spinning action scenes you could ask for, tethered firmly to a real city, and society, where the beasts, banter, and mind-spinning action scenes simply take more insidious, less ostentatious forms.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here