Book Review: "The City We Became" by N.K. Jemisin
Publication Date: March 24, 2020
Genre: Urban Fantasy
The City We Became is a book unlike any I have read. Before picking up this book, I had never heard of N.K. Jemisin, and I am so disappointed I didn't discover her sooner! She is an award-winning fantasy writer whose Broken Earth trilogy won the Hugo Award three years in a row. That's an accomplishment that has never before been achieved! She has even been called, "The most celebrated science fiction and fantasy writer of her generation" by the New York Times.
The City We Became basically follows the premise that each city is "born" at one time or another. When cities are born, a human is normally chosen as an "avatar" that helps guide the city and protect it from harm as it matures. In this story, New York City has chosen six avatars. Five characters represent each of New York City's boroughs: Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. The remaining avatar represents New York City as a whole.
When New York City is attacked by the dreaded "Woman in White," the avatars must all come together and fight her attempts to force New York City into a "stillbirth." Guided by the last city to be born, São Paulo, can they defeat her and help New York City thrive?
Why You Need to Read this NOW!
I absolutely loved this story because it is something that I have never read before; the concept was completely new and fresh to me. (Seriously, if you know of any other books similar The City We Became, let me know because I will be all over it.)
The story was serious at times, but it also could be hilarious. One of my favorite quotes was from New York City's avatar, "But Paulo's full of shit, too, like when he says I should consider meditation to better attune myself to the city's needs. Like I'mma get through this on white girl yoga" (9).
Jemisin was able to fully capture the essence of each New York City borough and transform them into one fully fleshed-out human. I thought the concept was genius, the pacing of the story was great, and the writing was a great mix of serious and hilarious.
I also liked how Jemisin wove social justice issues into her novel. For example, the city's avatar says, "If it wasn't the end of the month, I'd get on the subway, but the cops who haven't met their quota would fuck with me" (4). Or, "A cop car rolls by. I'm not too tired to imagine myself as nothing, beneath notice, not even worth beating for pleasure" (5). This character, as a Black person, sees the world differently than I do, as a white person. One of the most important aspects of reading is seeing the world through another person's eyes so we can be more empathetic towards others. The City We Became is a perfect example of that.
Another related aspect that I liked came from a quote early on in the story. The city's avatar says,
Back when I was in school, there was an artist who came in on Fridays to give us free lessons in perspective and lighting and other shit that white people go to art school to learn. Except this guy had done that, and he was Black. I'd never seen a Black artist before. For a minute I thought I could maybe be one, too (4).
This quote shows how important it is for Black people and people of color to see themselves represented in different areas of society, for example, the arts. I think back to my assigned reading in high school, and almost everything I read was by a white male. I didn't read a story from a person of color's perspective until senior year, when I was assigned The Kite Runner. I think that does students a disservice. White children sometimes never see the world from a perspective other than their own, and children of color are taught that their stories will always be marginalized in favor of white narratives.
I think that The City We Became should be taught in university, or even in high schools. Not only is there great discussion about racial issues, there is a lot of queer representation, with three gay characters and one transgender character. There is also a lot of talk about openly racist cops who have the power to mess with people of color just because they can. Obviously, this is an extremely relevant topic right now. For example, Aislyn, the avatar of Staten Island, has a racist policeman father.
"These people. Had to arrest this guy this morning—just sitting in his car, right? I figured he was dealing. Didn't find anything, but he's got no ID, right? So I run his tag and tell him we're calling ICE. Just to shake him up, see. He was acting all smooth. He says he's Puerto Rican, they're citizens, calls me all kinds of shit, starts talking about getting on that Twitter to complain about profiling." She can practically hear her father's eye roll. "Damn straight I profiled him, right into a cell, for assault."
With the protests that are going on in the world over police brutality at the moment, this book could offer some great discussion for teachers and students.
The City We Became also offers some good insight into toxic masculinity, which could produce productive discussions in schools or other literary groups. One quote that really stuck with me was, "When Aislyn was a teenager, she often thought of her mother as dull. since then Aislyn has come to understand that women have sometimes pretended to be dull so that the men around them can feel sharper" (268). Aislyn's parents have an abusive relationship, and there is talk about why women feel they have to stay in those relationships. Again, it goes back to allowing readers to experience another person's perspective.
There is also some material in the story about how women often blame themselves for sexual assault perpetrated against them. It could start a fruitful discussion on why that isn't right and how we can support these victims in our daily lives.
Overall, I think to enjoy the story, you have to be open to hearing about the aforementioned social justice issues. So, if you're not, you probably want to skip this book. But, I thought it was an absolutely wonderful story and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.