Writing the Song of a City: The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

In the lead-up to the 2021 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novel Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

“I sing the city.”

With one sentence, multiple award-winning writer N. K. Jemisin brought her readers into the fantastical and fractal world of New York City. Well known for her secondary world fantasy, with stories of bound gods, dream priests, and tectonic mothers, in The City We Became Jemisin brings all of her creative might to bear on one of the most magical cities in the world: NYC, baby. Springing forth from a sparkling short story, “The City Born Great,” Jemisin’s tale of Cities and their heroes, the midwives who help Cities reach maturation, and that terrible, cosmic horror that drifts beneath the skin of reality looking to consume newly birthed Cities comments on the joys, the battles, and the horrors of our very own world.

Anyone who’s ever walked the streets of New York City can feel a certain thrum in the concrete; it’s intoxicating for newcomers and residents alike. And the longer you live there, the more you can hear the heartbeat of the city, understand how it can change keys borough by borough, building the song of New York City itself. The bones and blood that Manhattan was built on intertwining with the red rush of freedom, capitalism, and skyscrapers; the historic and vibrant foundations of Brooklyn; the deep pride and strong community of the Bronx; the shoulder-to-shoulder, joyful immigrant families of Queens; and the off-beat sneer of Staten Island. And in The City We Became, all of that is about to become alive in a way that is rare and beautiful—if it can survive the birthing process. For The Enemy lurks just beneath NYC in a place of mouths and tentacles and teeth, a seething, toxic thing that waits for new cities of the world and devours them whole. And in the opening pages, it almost succeeds. Almost.

The avatar of New York City does his best to defend his home, but it’s too much, too overwhelming. The Enemy has struck too quickly, and the city begins to shatter in the assault. He needs help. And so he sinks his mind into the city itself and spreads out his power, finding five people, one for each borough beyond his own Manhattan, to become the city with him. One by one, in the wake of The Enemy’s first strike on the City, the avatars of the boroughs awaken, not just to their new powers and the deadly Woman in White—the avatar of The Enemy—but to each other as well. Jemisin has always had a way with her characters, effortlessly spinning them into being as already living, breathing, complex individuals. But as she introduces us to these avatars, she shines, building complicated people with their own histories and hardships to contend with, and the new pulse of their borough thumping through them, muddying already cloudy waters.

Manny, a queer Black man, can’t remember who he is, his past erased as Manhattan swallows him whole. Brooklyn, “MC Free,” one-time rapper turned councilwoman, knows that when she sings, her borough is listening. Padmini, an immigrant grad student, uses her deep well of mathematics to warp the very fabric of Queens and the city around her. Bronca, an older lesbian Lenape woman, suddenly has the entirety of New York City’s history living within her, and she’ll need it to protect her community art center. And young Aislyn is desperate to leave Staten Island, but is too terrified to attempt it, lest her father (an abusive, racist cop) punish her for it. As the threat of The Enemy is made known, these five learn to find each other and begin to learn to work together (not easily, mind you), even as the Woman in White begins to seduce one of them for her own eldritch purposes.

The City We Became was a literary beacon in a year when we desperately needed to be given hope. Things aren’t always easy in this novel, but Jemisin very quickly and firmly draws a line in the proverbial sand: New York City is a place for everyone. No matter where you’re from, who you are or were, NYC has your damn back. Released in March 2020, as a corrupt administration was already actively botching the early response to the pandemic, it was heartening to see a novel affirm that caring is an active choice that we’ll make again and again, that all are welcome here—and further that it doesn’t matter who you are, you belong here.

At the same time, the book reckons with the blood and bones of those slaves beneath the boroughs, actively confronting those in positions of power and authority and pointing out how racism, intolerance, and violence springs from those throughout the hierarchy, and actively finds ways to both combat them and create new systems. If that wasn’t enough, Jemisin creates a heroic team of five people of color, across a spectrum of genders, sexualities, communities, and identities, and uses them to interrogate H.P. Lovecraft and his place in the genre. You truly love to see it.

The City We Became combines Jemisin’s distinct, cutting prose with her boundless and beautiful imagination, brought into the real world via the city she loves. It is a love letter to the people of her city and NYC itself, but also fully delves into and grapples with its history, both good and bad. It is an astonishing and timely novel, and after the heart-pounding ending, I can’t wait to see where Jemisin takes us next in her magical and magnificent five boroughs.

A final note: I absolutely recommend this review from Tochi Onyebuchi about The City We Became; part essay, part historical excavation, it really gets at the heart of what Jemisin accomplishes in this novel and does so beautifully.

Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.

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