Review: The City We Became (Great Cities #1) by N.K. Jemisin

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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.


New York might be born in the world only to be shown right out of it.

Early in “The City We Became”, New York’s human avatar, a young queer Black man living in the streets, tries to salvage the City, to hold the breaking jar, keep his fingers over the cracks, but a battle with the Enemy—who sent forth the police as its harbingers—had worn him to little more than edges. He is weak and unsteady as moonlight on water, and the City was a candle that might burn out if he waited too long. 

Luckily, the City has scattered itself like breadcrumbs, dusted across its boroughs, and all five of them are stirring from stillness, tugging insistently on some rope drawn tight inside their avatars who must find each other, follow the paths that they see in their minds, a line that runs through New York, zig-zagging, curving, coiling—and it leads to him. The primary avatar is a shrinking beacon, a lighthouse viewed too far from port, and they drift toward him, like a magnet drawn to its inevitable polarity.

They must awake him. They must save the City before the Enemy sets its jaws upon it.

New York must go on, it must survive—no matter the cost.

“Come, then, City That Never Sleeps. Let me show you what lurks in the empty spaces where nightmares dare not tread.” 

I found my way to Jemisin’s “Fifth Season” a couple years ago, and pleasurably devoured it. It was a complex, intricate mechanism of a book, an ingeniously imagined sprawl set in a world that periodically undergoes violent, life-threatening apocalypses. In “The City We Became”, Jemisin picks a far less fantastic setting for her novel: New York, but what she does with it is no less ambitious. This time Jemisin projects the elusive identity of the New Yorker into a brighter, crueler dimension, a place where our evils are not changed but illuminated, and she does so by taking so many of our contemporary problems to horrifying extremes.

Places are never just places in a piece of writing—they are as essential a character as any of the people populating a story. Jemisin has lived in New York for many years, and she brings that authority to bear on the novel. “This is my homage to the city,” she writes, and with it she her personal passion for the city, and the energy with which she writes about it is infectious.

The characters in “The City We Became” are so intrinsically identified with the city that it’s impossible to understand them without the author’s detailed, precise evocation of New York. Jemisin has assembled an intricate mosaic of family, history, friendship, and the way cities can both shield and dehumanize. There’s Bronca, the Lenape director of the Bronx Art Center whose tendency to mistrust is a reflex, like drawing your knife when your rival’s hand twitches. Brooklyn is a once-famous rap star-turned-city-councilwoman. Padmini is an immigrant Tamil mathematician who’s there on a visa. Manny is a multiracial grad student trying to fill in the gaps where memories of his complicated past should be. And Ainslyn is the sheltered Irish American daughter of an abusive cop, and she wants nothing to do with any of them. But New York has tipped like the deck of a ship, pitching them all in the same direction, and the primary avatar—still unconscious somewhere in the heart of the city—is summoning them with a force one might only call kinship. The city cannot wage war against itself without irreversible consequences, and coming together in solidarity is its only hope.

“This city will eat you alive, you know, if you let it. Don’t.” 

There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel, but I found, however, that “The City We Became” lacks the tautness of the author’s previous fiction, bogged down with snail-paced developments, lengthy speeches about humanity, politics and culture, and excessive stretches of character interactions which often go around and around until it feels like they are actors in a play going through the same performance page after page, their lines hollow, their actions choreographed.

What the novel mostly fails to do is give enough of a reason to care about its plot, which struggles for a mouthful of air, like a fish in an empty bowl. Too much prose hurts the novel’s momentum, and as a result—and despite the heavy-handed countdown at the heart of the story—any urgency it might have had is mostly drained away. 

That said, Jemisin’s blend of humor and poignancy carries the novel, or at least alleviates the tedium, on several occasions. Jemisin’s wit is razor-sharp, and she excels her ambitions to manifest her politics seamlessly through the story. Her acute observations about how the personal and political intricately enmesh in all our lives resonate deeply in light of today’s political climate. Jemisin also makes several statements about the abuses of racism, xenophobia and gentrification through symbolism that’s as subtle as a neon mousetrap: in “The City We Became”, that violence is a conduit used, with horrible relish, by the “disembodied existential evil” that seeks to devour the City of New York, and as the story powers forward, the metaphor is sharpened even more.

Despite the aforementioned quibbles, the total is more than the sum of its parts, and I am looking forward to reading the sequel.

5 thoughts on “Review: The City We Became (Great Cities #1) by N.K. Jemisin

  1. I’m so excited for this novel! I’ve read and loved The Fifth Season and its sequel (still need to read the third novel), and I think Jemisin is an incredibly talented author. I love her world-building and how complex and morally gray her characters are. It’s a bit sad you didn’t enjoy this as much as her previous works, but I’m glad it was still worth reading. Great review! 🙂


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