Book: “The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin
Publishing Info: Orbit, March 2020
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+
Book Description: Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.
But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.
Review: I’ve been a fan of Jemisin’s since years ago when I first read “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.” But my love for her didn’t really set in until after I read the “Broken Earth” trilogy. Those books blew me away with the sheer scope of imagination and dexterity of language that were required to pull off such a feat. With those in mind, I went into this book knowing that if anyone could handle the strange set-up that was offered in the book description, it would be Jemisin. And she definitely does! Sadly, this book didn’t hit quite the same mark as the others of hers that I’ve read, but I suspect much of that is just down to my own reading preferences.
Birth is a painful, messy business. It can be as frightening as it is beautiful. A city’s birth is no different, especially for one such as New York City, a behemoth whose very soul can’t be contained in one vessel. Instead, when things begin to go wrong as NYC strives towards its own new life, five individuals are selected to represent the myriad of faces and lives that make up this one spirit. Together they must become the protectors the city needs and fight off a great evil that threatens this new life.
Even though this book wasn’t the huge hit for me that I was hoping for, there is still a lot to praise it for. As always, Jemisin’s creativity is without bounds. The idea of great cities developing souls is just fantastic, and the book takes that theme and runs with it into some crazy and unexpected places. The strength of writing needed to make some of these completely foreign fantasy elements make sense is mind boggling, and it’s here that Jemisin has always shined. There were a bunch of lines that not only jumped off the page, but more so slammed into my unprepared mind with all the beauty and shock of a firework. It was truly impressive.
Part of my struggle, however, also had to do with the writing. Not so much maybe the writing, but the way that it was so clearly an homage to New York City and the many cultures made up within that huge city. I’ve only visited NYC on one frantic, 24 hour period visit. So I know very little about the actual city itself. And for a book so focused on the heart of this city and the pieces that make it unique and tick, I was often left feeling like I was an outsider looking in. Many of the stronger pieces of writing I could see objectively as great, but I couldn’t connect to personally as it was so clearly talking about a specific place and people that I personally don’t know much about. And, unlike most second world fantasy where all readers are “newbies” learning about a world they don’t understand, this was clearly written to some extent with the idea that readers would know and connect to some of these elements, without the book itself needing to do that extra legwork. So, in this way, some of the mileage of this book might depend on the reader’s own familiarity, and to a lesser extent, interest, in New York City itself.
I also had a hard time feeling truly connected to many of the POV characters. The story starts off quite quickly and doesn’t spend much time laying out many details for readers. In some regards, this is a staple trick of Jemisin’s and one can have faith that the answers will come eventually. They do here as well. But this trick then depends on the reader connecting to and investing in the main characters themselves early on to carry one through until plot details begin to clarify. I’m not sure quite what the problem was here for me. Perhaps there were just too many characters, and combining that with the slow moving pieces of putting the plot together, was just too much.
Jemisin is also well-known for putting diverse characters first and foremost in her books, often strong women of color. And here, too, the cast is diverse across all kinds of lines. But there were also moments where I felt like the message (for lack of a better word) was a bit more hamfisted here than the incredibly powerful observations and mirrors that were held up in her previous works. Really, it felt in some ways like this entire book was a bigger statement (particularly in response to the Lovecraft stuff that has pervaded SFF for so long) that the author needed to get out into the world. And that’s a good thing! But it also, again, left it a bit harder for me to fully sink into this book as a reading experience.
Overall, I think this book is incredibly powerful and highlights again the strength of Jemisin’s skill as an author, both in her masterful world-building as well as just the strength of her writing. That this one didn’t really hit home for me could, in part, simply be due to my own lack of knowledge of (or real interest in) NYC itself. But for those with a stronger connection to that city, I’m sure some of these elements in particular will strike a much stronger chord. Fans of Jemisin’s work should definitely still try this out and those looking for an urban fantasy novel that breaks the mold for what urban fantasy typically offers are sure to be intrigued!
Rating 7: Incredibly unique with a widely diverse cast, but it was a bit harder to become invested in than other works by this author.
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