The City We Became (N. K. Jemisin)

30 March 2022

The City We Became

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.

Average Rating:

Sinclair Manson (2 April 2022 20:38)

It took me a while to warm up to this book. It's very much in the tradition of Neil Gaiman, who was indeed quoted on the cover, and I've always found that vein of fantasy ("urban fantasy" was the best suggestion I could get for a label, which does have the advantage of being very literal in this case) as irritating as it is fascinating. I've never got comfortable with how excited my brain gets about the high concepts. "Personifications of modern cities? So intriguing!"

That said, there were some concepts in this book that I particularly loved. In our group discussion, it was suggested that Lovecraftian cosmic horror is diluted at a novel's length and is more effective in a short story. I think that may be true but I don't read this novel as cosmic horror. It's too sentimental about its characters. Having read The Fifth Season, I know that N.K. Jemisin is capable of a brutal lack of sentimentality and so I read the positivity of The City We Became as a deliberate rejection of cosmic horror and especially that element of Lovecraft's horror that was rooted in his xenophobia. Most particularly The Horror At Red Hook was explicitly based on Lovecraft's experiences of living in the "hybrid squalor" of Brooklyn, while The City We Became celebrates New York's heterogeneity. It is that diversity that brings cities to life in The City We Became, the very essence of humanity opposed by a cosmic threat representing the dehumanising forces of cultural purity. It's a clever twist, and it makes me smile and want to read the book again.

What I liked least about this book was that some characters felt a little underdeveloped. Most glaringly Manny's flatmate turns up, gets interesting and then goes home. Some of the avatars at the heart of the story are much more developed than others and New York himself isn't really a full character. It may be, I hope, that some of this balances out over the course of the full series of novels.