YOU know how some cities are so vibrant they feel as though they’re alive? How people say they have a soul? Well that’s because they do.
Cities are not just made of bricks and mortar, but the stories people tell about them, the cultures, hopes, fears and dreams of those who live there and those who pass through, growing and growing to the point where the city becomes sentient and chooses a living avatar to represent it. New York is the latest city to undergo this. But something goes wrong, and the city is left vulnerable to attack by an ancient, otherworldly enemy that has been thwarting this process for millennia.
But New York is different, because it’s not just one city but a conglomerate of five distinct boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island. So New York doesn’t just have one soul, she has six. And now it’s up to those individual avatars to find and awaken the Primary, and expel the Enemy from the city before disaster strikes. That’s if they can find each other. And, when they do, if they can work together.
Brooklyn-based author N.K. Jemisin (left) made history in 2016 when she became the first African-American woman to win a Hugo Award for best novel for the first book in her “Broken Earth” trilogy, and for the second time in 2018 when she made history became the first author to win a Hugo for every novel in a trilogy. The City We Became is the first instalment in her new trilogy “The Great Cities”, the germ of which began in a short story from her 2018 collection How Long ’til Black Future Month?, ‘The City Born Great’ (a slightly modified version of which serves as the novel’s prologue).
While Jemisin has said that this trilogy is a way for her to have a little “monstrous fun”, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have anything to say. The City We Became is a brilliantly written Urban Fantasy and & Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror; one that not only acknowledges his legacy and influence on the genre but also interrogates that influence, confronting the issue of his racism head on.
Lovecraft hated New York; he couldn’t stand all the people of different races mixing together. In The City We Became, the ‘Enemy’ is an entity from a reality beyond ours (and is implied perhaps to be a minion of Lovecraft’s Old ones) and manifests as various white women dressed all in white (earning the nickname “The Woman in White”). And the tools it uses to undermine the city?
Racism and xenophobia; gentrification and the homogeny it brings, erasing a city’s history and eroding its uniqueness, making it just like everywhere else. Forces that are given an eldritch makeover, yes – in the form of ghostly white tentacles it uses to infect and take control of various people in things, including alt-right groups (the depiction of a Men’s rights group is particularly hilarious in its skewering) – but sadly were already present.
And they’re often more chilling when they’re presented with little to no horror make-up. For example, New York’s primary avatar is a homeless young black man, so what does the Enemy use to try and stop him? What he’s most afraid of: the police.
Obviously, there is a lot that could, and rightly should, make readers uncomfortable, or, at the very least, make them have a long, hard think. (I also recognise that, as a white person, there is a layer of experience that I’m missing.) Revelations late in the story also adds further layers of moral complexity that will surely be built on over the next two books.
That said, what is a city but a community or several communities come together? Even if they don’t always get along or see eye to eye. Well what family does? In an interview with TIME, Jemisin stated that:
“When I contemplate existential evil, I don’t see some abstract devil, I see people torpedoing themselves just to maintain a status quo and systemic advantages that actually in the long run aren’t helpful for everybody… The consistent theme throughout my work is that these are all societies that could be great, and they aren’t because people gotta be a–holes.
That’s really what it breaks down to. There are self-sustaining systems at work which discourage people from working together and doing what is good for all. We can stop those, but it has to be a choice…You’re not going to save the world with technology; you’re not going to save the world with some new scientific innovation. You’re going to save it with people choosing to fight against things that they perceive as wrong.”
As well as comic-books (the cover in particular has a pulp, comic-book feel), Jemisin also identified Sentai as a big influence (a genre of Japanese TV that sees a team of warriors get together to save the world from evil forces; while maybe not the best example, the Power Rangers franchise is the one that will be most familiar to western audiences). The main cast of embodies all of this – they are diverse in every sense: gender, race, age, sexuality, culture, and socio-economic status, and the majority of the book is them not only getting to grips with their new roles but also learning to work together. In this way, she uses them to send up and deconstruct the stereotypes about each borough (that Manhattan is charming at a surface level but vicious underneath, for example, and that Staten Island is the part of New York that doesn’t want to be part of New York) but in a way that’s accessible to those whose only knowledge of the city comes from film and TV. But they’re also fully rounded characters; even the ones who aren’t always particularly sympathetic are still interesting.
Though we only see things mostly from the points of view of Manny (Manhattan), Bronca (The Bronx) and Aislyn (Staten Island), the others aren’t neglected, and there’s room for us to learn a lot more about them over the course of the rest of the trilogy I wouldn’t hesitate to name The City We Became as one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and a great start to a series that I’m really excited to continue! An entertaining ride with a lot of fat to chew.
*The City We Became, 448 pages, is published by Little, Brown Group and is available via Amazon and booksellers.
REVIEWER CAROLYN PERCY reviews contemporary fiction for Horla. She also contributes reviews to other websites including Wales Arts Review. She is a librarian and holds a master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea, Wales.