And Then I Read: THE CITY WE BECAME by N. K. Jemisin

I loved Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, so I read the first book of her latest series. It takes place in New York City of today, and suggests that NYC is about to achieve a new kind of awareness through a few of its citizens. Other cities of our world have already been “born” in the same way, though some have failed and fallen apart in the past. New York’s imminent birth will happen through six different people, one representing each of the city’s boroughs, and one to encompass them all. Making this much harder, an unknown force from outside our reality is trying to manifest right on top of New York and not only cause the city to fail, but to replace it with something horrible instead that will lead to the destruction of everything we know. The intruder takes many forms, some are huge monsters, some are ghostly appendages and tentacles, some are embodied in the “Lady in White,” who attacks the people chosen to represent each borough individually before they even understand what’s happening. A homeless man is befriended by Sao Paulo, a man from that city who embodies it, and who’s come to help NYC through its difficult transition. Paulo tells his new friend he is to be the conduit for the entire city, but isn’t believed. Then the man is pursued by a monster, and begins to understand. He uses a new surge of energy rising inside him to defeat the first intruding danger, but then falls into an exhausted coma in a place where he’ll be hard to find.

The narrative then begins to follow another of the chosen, this time a man newly arrived in the city who will represent the borough of Manhattan. He too feels strange new energy inside himself, but he’s hampered by amnesia, and can’t remember his own name or anything about his past. Before long he too is threatened by a different kind of monster, a human one, in a park at the upper end of Manhattan. Not knowing what’s going on, things look bad until he gets help from some new friends and begins to understand just what he can do to fight the intruder. That’s just the beginning, as each of the boroughs comes into their new awareness, and faces attack. Only bringing them all together will give them hope of winning this odd interdimensional war, and the Woman in White will do all she can to prevent it, with special attention given to the young woman representing Staten Island.

I didn’t like this as much as the other Jemisin books I’ve read. It certainly has its moments, but the story seems too plot-driven, and I didn’t feel I got to know the characters well before they’re thrown into peril. One main character’s back story is a complete mystery, the others have theirs filled in largely through exposition, but I didn’t feel much connection to them, with the exception of the woman chosen to embody Staten Island, who is given more time in the book. Also, Jemisin clearly did lots of research, and the characters often seem to be imparting lots of that rather than reacting like real people. In general the pace of the book is frantic, rushing from crisis to crisis, rather than building slowly to the drama, as Jemisin did so well in her Broken Earth trilogy. The fit of the concept onto a real city I’ve spent time in (though admittedly mostly in Manhattan) was not a good fit for me, your mileage may vary. Certainly it’s an exciting page turner at times. I also thought the ultimate reveal behind the intruders was predictable. A much better science fiction book about New York is “Time and Again” by Jack Finney in my opinion. Mildly recommended.

The City We Became by N K Jemisin

One thought on “And Then I Read: THE CITY WE BECAME by N. K. Jemisin

  1. Raymond Neal

    I think you nailed the reason I didn’t like this as much as her other works – the information transfer aspect. It’s kind of funny how these denizens of an actual contemporary city feel less real than the Broken Earth and Inheritance folks.

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