[Spoilers lie ahead]
N.K. Jemisin is a genius and at I think at this point it’s indisputable. Just as The Broken Earth trilogy was a treatise on the leylines of oppression, THE CITY WE BECAME is a dissertation on the power of our collective urban existence and the stories that emerge from it. It’s a novel that eloquently pushes back against the long held American romance with the rural and it does this not by degrading the rural but showing just how much urban life is in the fabric of the American identity too.
We all know New York is one of the most diverse cities on the planet, but popular fiction has often done a very poor job of putting that on display. Some of our most fondly held up fictional expressions of New York City are painfully straight and white. I don’t think I’m surprising anyone by saying Jemisin avoided that completely. Each of the main characters in this story exist at the intersections of life. We have a homeless gay Black man, a former rapper turned city councilor, and an older queer Indigenous woman all peppered throughout the novel among others. It’s impossible to walk away from this cast without feeling like you have some small pulse on the city of New York. I can only imagine, with some degree of jealousy, how much of a delight this story will be for actual locals. Every borough, even Staten Island (which this book gave me quite the interesting perspective on), shines in its own unique way.
There’s also a lot of heartbreaking honesty that happens in smaller moments throughout this novel. Come back to me once you’ve found out everything about the character of Kendra and I dare you to tell me you aren’t left completely heartbroken by it. Jemisin is a master of giving us those whammies amid what seems like a narrative slowdown. Truly great stuff.
What really and truly hooked me in as a reader though was the discussion of the multiverse and alternate dimensions. That is the one concept I will always be immediately captivated by no matter how many times I’ve read about it. And THE CITY WE BECAME does something quite interesting with this concept and how it revolves around cities being born. I love how it immediately shifts the moral scales of the story and makes you really have to think. Even though the antagonist in this novel is completely despicable and downright horrifying, you still have to ask yourself if maybe they have a point?
Speaking of antagonists, the Lady in White is just an absolutely brilliant commentary on the benign malevolence of white women. Everything about how she interacts with the characters is fake smiles and passive aggressive statements. She’s Dolores Umbridge if she’d been hired by Eldritch gods. There’s never a moment where you don’t understand she’s one unsatisfactory response away from tearing everything around her down with tears and hair pulling. She’s every single white woman you’ve had to placate because you knew they were about to make a scene behind their clear screw-up. She’s the white woman who pats your hair and gets offended when you tell her not to. And it works, because that’s ultimately how this character regards humanity; as annoying little pests that she has to deal with and try to be civil about it.
Come to this book for the great concept, get hooked by the mastery of setting and stay for the characters. It’s a ride well worth it.
The City We Became
[Spoilers lie ahead] N.K. Jemisin is a genius and at I think at this point it’s indisputable. Just as The Broken Earth trilogy was a treatise on the leylines of oppression, THE CITY WE BECAME ...
- Blackness Present5.0