The City We Became

Jemisin, N.K.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
McClelland, Spencer
  • Date of entry: Dec-07-2020


This is the first in an intended trilogy of speculative fiction (read: what we used to struggle to label as sci-fi or fantasy). by author N.K. Jemisin.  It tells the story of a world where cities can come alive, not in the corporeal sense, and not in this universe, but in a way that intersects nonetheless with our reality.  The trouble is, not all cities distinguish themselves enough to be born, and those that do often are interrupted in the process and suffer a stillbirth.  We are plopped down in New York City at the moment of its intended birth, in a struggle between the city, its six human avatars (one for each borough, and one for the city as a whole) and the otherworldly force that is trying to destroy it.  


I loved this book.  I started reading it at the end of May when I was just beginning to process the trauma of working through the first wave of the COVID-19 epidemic, and felt like I needed a love letter to New York City.  As fantastical as the premise is, it's not that hard to swallow.  (And yes, I do read a lot of speculative fiction, but this will probably go down easy with both those initiated to the genre and those not.)  

The real magic of the book is the characterization of the city through its avatars. Though some may complain they trade on stereotypes, I found Jemisin's exploration of the city's and boroughs' identities entertaining and enlightening.  Manhattan, for example, is a recent transplant from outside the city who comes for a finance job and instantly suffers amnesia and can't recall his own name.  Brooklyn is a former hip-hop MC turned city council member.  I won't give away the rest.

As with all good speculative fiction, the cogency of the world-building is one feat, but the ability of that world to reflect our own is the real art.  Jemisin uses the relationships between avatars to explore aspects of identity (race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity), power, trauma, and loss, but also to explore what makes a city come alive (why do New York and a handful of others get the privilege of being born, while so many older cities do not?).  The novel ultimately centers around themes of inclusion and exclusion as the city struggles with its inner and external enemies. And the ending, which reinforces what makes New York City so distinctive and so great, made me proud to be a New Yorker.

I highly recommend this, and I'm looking forward eagerly to the next books in the trilogy.



Place Published

New York

Page Count