Before I read The City We Became, the first book in a new trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, I heard someone describe it as Captain Planet meets Cthulhu. Truly, a more apt description is not possible for this delightful, bold, action-packed book.
Unlike most of Jemisin’s previous work, this one is set in modern New York City instead of a fantasy world. But like her previous books, there’s plenty of magic, myth, and confronting of racism and prejudice.
The book’s premise is this: Cities, when they’re vibrant enough, can become, living, breathing entities represented by human avatars. In New York’s case, there are six—one for each of the five boroughs, and one primary avatar who will unite them. With the exception of Staten Island, all the avatars are people of color representing NYC’s diversity.
(And this is where, if you were a child in the ‘90s, you’ll immediately see the similarity to Captain Planet, a cartoon that featured five children who protected the earth and could call on the super hero Captain Planet when they all got together.)
Unfortunately for cities everywhere, the “Enemy” wants to prevent cities from actualizing. The Enemy is a Lovecraftian horror, complete with tentacles and the ability to pierce dimensions and cause shifts in reality. Not at all coincidentally, the Enemy takes the form of the Woman in White, and always appears to the avatars as a well-dressed white woman in a business suit (or athleisure, a few times).
Themes of race, racism, and gentrification are at the forefront of The City We Became. Not only do the boroughs have to fight the inter-dimensional horror of the Woman in White, they also have to convince the sheltered, scared, conservative avatar of Staten Island that four brown people are the good guys. As you can imagine, this does not go particularly well.
Initially, I had trouble getting into the story. The writing is top-notch, and the way Jemisin gives each borough such a distinctive voice is masterful. But I don’t have any strong connections to New York City. I’ve visited numerous times and enjoy visiting, but it’s not the kind of city I’d personally want to live in. Once I got past the first three chapters, though, I found myself hooked.
Some reviewers have said they didn’t always know what was going on, and I can understand that criticism. The City We Became is a big concept book, and some familiarity with the Cthulhu mythos will definitely help ground your reading.
But what Jemisin does well, she does exceptionally well. Each character truly embodies their borough. The way she writes about Staten Island’s brain-washed racism and xenophobia is downright chilling and stunning to read.
Reading this book as a white woman who grew up in a conservative household, I recognized more of myself and my childhood in Staten Island’s character than I really care to admit. I won’t lie: parts of this book made me uncomfortable. But that’s a good thing. It was refreshing to see these issues laid bare in a way that revealed issues but still humanized the character. Jemisin doesn’t vilify Staten Island or present her as evil. Instead, she shows how system racism harms not only people of color, but white people as well—even as they benefit from it.
The City We Became is a love song to New York City, and it’s also a critique. It’s a celebration of diversity, and a reminder of how far we still have to go. But, this book tells us, we can get there if we go together.
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