In the first pages of N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy novel The City We Became, (437 pages; Orbit), the reader is thrown into the vertiginous action: New York City contorts as it literally comes alive, fighting off an interdimensional Enemy—at times a tentacled incarnation of Lovecraftian racism. Without a moment’s lull, Jemisen’s protagonists—cities and boroughs in the form of human avatars—grapple with an adversary wielding xenophobia and bent on destruction.
In this, the first book in Jemisen’s Great Cities trilogy, metropolises are born after developing enough cultural complexity and overlay to form their own three-dimensional personalities. But as they enter the world, “They make a weight on the world, a tear in the fabric of reality.”
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New York’s avatar, a scraggly, Black kid from the streets, battles with the powerful enemy, realized in the form of a woman always wearing white. She spreads insidious tendrils across the city, clogging its arteries (highways) and co-opting cops to hunt down our protagonist. In the epic battle that catalyzes the book, the enemy (sometimes known as “Squigglebitch”) and the avatar are both wounded. To protect itself, New York City awakes one avatar from each borough—each personality reflecting their borough’s character—to fight. “They must, or die,” they learn. Otherwise, New York will share the fate of Atlantis and Pompeii, who—yes, “who”—crumbled under the Enemy’s attack. The eclectic team, with their familiar, superhero-esque banter, sets out to find NYC’s primary avatar, now comatose, and their Staten Island counterpart—later described as a “selfish xenophobic little heifer.”
Throughout their struggle, the Enemy appears in many prescient forms: an early interaction, in Inwood Park has a white woman threatening, “If you lay a finger on me, I’ll scream and the cops will shoot you! You druggies!” at two characters, who could have just as easily been birders. They are “African American. Or Maybe Hispanic? I can’t tell,” the woman tells the police. The tropes of the book point to the everyday racism in the United States that is now gaining the attention it deserves. Jemisin’s description brings acts of racist confirmation bias into focus. At one point, a character’s gaze “skates over skin so Black that it’s like looking into a Magic 8 Ball before the little plastic thing inside bobs up to say: NOW PANIC.”
Jemisin’s prose is at times disorienting, leaving few solid images for the reader to grasp. Some explanations prove inexplicable (“…there are epigenetic manifestations, metabolic fluxes that should follow through in a perceptible way”), but I hope these will be made clear in the sequels. An uncontested moral justification for the Enemy’s attempts to destroy the city also needs exploring. But for the most part, Jemisin blends the fantastic and the real into a satisfying magical realism. She deftly uses genre to hammer home the underlying rhetoric: “Forcing others to acknowledge my point of origin provides a latent strengthening effect,” the ailing avatar of São Paulo says, describing the theoretical rules of sentient cities.
Though its 437 pages, The City We Became’s energetic writing keeps the reader in an ever-anxious state, driving home at least one important point: “Confirmation bias is a bitch.”