Friday, April 24, 2020

Book Review: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

I'm a fan of many of N.K. Jemisin's books so when I heard she was working on a fantasy novel about New York I was intrigued. When I read the preview chapter over at Orbit Books, I knew I had to get it. Having lived in New York myself, I was hopping I would get a better appreciation for it and I think I certainly did. Without further ado, here is the Goodreads blurb:

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.

Read on for my spoiler-free review.

Overall Impression
This was an excellent book filled with an imaginative setting that is both recognizable (New York City) and surreal as well. The characters are a lively bunch and they struggle for survival in this tense, fast-paced story. I really enjoyed exploring this universe, seeing New York personified, and thinking about what this means in the grander scope of human history.

The plot of this book, in my opinion, takes second place to the setting and the characters. A city- The City, has somehow awakened and various people find themselves becoming the avatars of the separate boroughs of New York. A mysterious Enemy has assaulted the newly born city and it's up to them to safe guard it. Because the characters know very little of what's going on (and because this is different than other times), they have very little guidance and so are mainly reacting to the Enemy's actions. They have some simple goals- get all the boroughs together and find the primary, but other than that it's all just trying to stay alive. You never really know what to expect in books structured like this and it keeps you gripped all the way through.

There are a variety of characters in the story and the main ones are the avatars of the different boroughs of New York- Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island. It's really cool to see how they embody the aspects of what makes each borough unique and how they interact with each other in ways that just scream New York! Add to that a few other city avatars that stop by, humans that get caught up in the mess, and the Enemy itself and you have an interesting set of characters to drive the story.

Setting / World Building
The story takes place in, as you can imagine, New York City. Now, I briefly lived in New York, in an apartment in Inwood. So when the avatar of Manhattan arrives there and walks along Dyckman Street and around Inwood Hill Park I was ecstatic! I recognized all these places (although I lived closer to Fort Tryon than Inwood Hill and so would frequent that more) and it felt so real. This book made me want to go back and explore all the places in New York that I haven't been to, just so I could connect better with the story.

In addition to New York by itself, the book is filled with a weird sort of magic. Cities, at some point in their history, can reach a point where they 'awaken' and somehow become alive. When they do, an avatar of that city emerges to protect it and do whatever it is a city does. The idea behind this is really cool and we see some interesting hints and lore about other cities that have also awakened, like Sao Paolo and Hong Kong, as well as cases where something went wrong in the process and resulted in the end of the city in some way or another. It's clever and reminds me a bit of some aspects of China Mieville's books since he has a tendency of enriching a city so much that it feels like a character in his novels. I personally have never read Lovecraft, but I recognize some influences from there as well.

Final Thoughts
This was an excellent book. Jemisin manages to take an already well-established setting, the "mythological" New York, and take it to new heights with surrealist magic and eldritch horrors. A diverse set of characters lead the story as the avatars of the five boroughs of New York and it's really neat to see them embracing who they are and interacting with each other. Thanks to a fast paced plot, I finished this fairly quickly and kept wanting for more as there are some tantalizing mysteries left out in the open. I was presently surprised to hear in the acknowledgements (yes, I read those too) that this is the first of a trilogy. Looking forward to more books in this strange new universe!

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