“Coldness would be reprehensible, horrifying. Compassion is worse, because it cannot be dismissed as evil.” – N.K. Jemisin, The City We Became
A lot of stories end with a bang, but the City We Became starts with one. The slam of a door, in fact. The whole first chapter barely gives the reader room to breathe, a discordant, beautiful morass of swirling colors and sensations that follows a homeless man as he goes from painting living mouths across Manhattan rooftops to being chased by an Eldritch monster across FDR drive. N.K. Jemisin’s world is bizarre but fascinating, giving life to a novel as rich in premise as it is in prose. The idea is a simple one: what if cities were alive? Not alive like creatures, although there are certainly organic elements to Jemisin’s vibrant urban fantasy, but alive metaphysically. The world is similar in many ways to the universe of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, another entry in the modern genre that has become known as mythpunk. In Jemisin’s world, when “Great Cities” gather enough people and meaning into them they come alive, with all the will and power of millions of urbanites invested in a single avatar, a person that embodies the living city itself.
Unfortunately, magically animated cities have the same cliques as the rest of humanity, so ancient cities like Rome, Hong Kong, and London look down on the “young” cities of the U.S. as immature upstarts. In fact, many of these cities are yet to awaken as conscious entities, having not yet amassed enough people to empower them. One such city is New York, a cultural melting pot and nexus of U.S. culture and momentum. New York is about to come alive with a homeless graffiti artist as its representative. However, even with some of the old cities watching over the young initiate, there is still danger. Since the beginning of time something ancient and evil has threatened conscious cities and, when New York’s first battle with this thing goes horribly wrong, the city is left weakened and defenseless while “The Enemy” is mostly defeated but not quite gone. Five total strangers, now the living gods of Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, are thrust into an unexpectedly enjoyable adventure to find each other and escape Lovecraftian horrors before New York suffers the same fate as Pompeii.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is that, much like American Gods, The City We Became boasts a distinctly modern and urban magic. When threatened by magical horrors from beyond this world, Jemisin’s characters respond not with some arcane spell or potion but with some quintessential New Yorkism. The gods of New York throw cursed credit cards, deal out magical graffiti art and, in one case, beat back tentacled horrors by shouting fluid dynamics equations. Despite the dark tone of the novel, The City We Became is unexpectedly funny, complete with five lovable and unlikely gods whose prickly personal lives and unusual wizardry drive the story more than any eldritch villainy ever could. Lest we undermine the role of the villain, however, Jemisin’s antagonist certainly should not be underestimated. The Woman in White, as the characters call her, is fantastically evil, a veritable paradigm of a super-villain whose role is written so well that one is almost tempted to root for her. Every character, from hero to villain to minor sidekick, shines in their own way.
The City We Became is a complex book. All literature has examples of masterpieces that are marred by the deplorable behavior of their creators, but the sci-fi/fantasy arena has it worse than most. The genre has had a well-earned reputation for misogyny and racism for most of its history. In this case, Jemisin is grappling with the complex legacy of H.P. Lovecraft, widely regarded as the founder of the modern horror genre but also infamous for his hate-filled depictions of women and minority groups. Parts of Jemisin’s book are clearly inspired by Lovecraft which she makes no attempt to hide, with several characters describing their enemies as “like something out of Lovecraft”. Jemisin addresses Lovecraft’s hate-mongering head on. One of the characters of the story, an experienced art critic, has a confrontation with a fraudulent artist who has created a piece titled after one of Lovecraft’s works, a piece of writing so explicitly racist and horrifying that the title cannot be included here. Jemisin’s story is a grand allegory that allows her to explore many of the issues that have to be faced in American society today, including police brutality, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, online harassment, and the rise of the Alt-Right.
Jemisin is the only author to have won a Hugo Award three consecutive years in the awards’ 65 year history, one for each of the books of her Broken Earth trilogy. Some extremist groups have organized online to rig the Hugo Awards, which are determined by open vote, by collaborating in massive voting blocks to spam the system with votes exclusively for white men. In her 2018 Hugo acceptance speech, earned despite rigging attempts, Jemisin said, “It’s been a hard year, hasn’t it? A hard few years, a hard century. For some of us, things have always been hard. I wrote the Broken Earth trilogy to speak to that struggle, and what it takes to live, let alone thrive, in a world that seems determined to break you…” Much of that lived experience, both fear and hope, is heard in The City We Became, making for a novel that at times jumps from raucous adventure to truly earthshaking insight into the trauma of living in “a world of people who constantly question your competence, your relevance, your very existence”, made even more disturbing for being drawn from Jemisin’s real experience.
Jemisin is deliberately setting a new example for the genre, to write a new story where minorities are an integral and welcomed part of science fiction and fantasy. The City We Became is an amazing book, which faces in the real world just as many enemies as its characters do. Like the best literature, it is not just a good book, it is a book that can make the world better.