Reviewing one of the season’s biggest books: The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

To call N. K. Jemisina superstar in genre is an understatement. She pulled off an unprecedented trifecta of Hugo Awards for her debut trilogy. She is a “name” author in genre, whose work is widely read and widely known. Like all great artists, she has pitched a battle line in culture that openly challenges forces of evil in society who feel resentment at the loss of white privilege. She has been at the top of her game for years, and seems to be redefining what the top of the game even is.

So, let’s not pretend you didn’t know she had a new book out, and let’s not pretend it isn’t excellent for even a minute. Other reviews seem to be grasping at straws to find something to say about the book so their review will come across as “balanced” describing the loose plotting structure, perhaps, or the way it feels very much like a Super Hero story that owes too much to the Marvel Cinema Franchise. These are useless complaints by reviewers grasping at straws. There is so much good in this book, so much of the moment, as if N. K. Jemisin was a clairvoyant of the zeitgeist, that these minor complaints ring hollow. Plot is the least useful way of approaching a story about something so rambling and beautiful and cacophonous as the city of New York. And, the superhero comparisons only speak to the universality of the narrative, how it feels familiar to us and true to a form we are learning to embrace, as a culture.

Okay, so it’s a great book. It will win something big. It also arrived not a moment too soon for our current city crisis, and seems to tell a story of an emergent, non-Euclidean evil that rises up from some other plane to devour cities, when they reach a certain ripeness.  One of the great pleasures of this text is not only its stunning timeliness, but the way Jemisin reshapes the Lovecraftian Mythos into something that is not about the wicked Other, but a symptom of the wicked Us. The whitewashed whiteness and police cars and racial profiling police state are the tools and symbols of a culture caught in a kind of squamous horror, as the tentacles of old racist ideation creep back into society. Lovecraft was always ever about fear, and the fearful are the ones who are the source of the infection in Jemisin’s work. Fear of the Other is an important ingredient in the infection that will devour the city whole in some plane few can see.

Okay, there are avatars of different boroughs — humans who become the living embodiment of boroughs and islands of the city. They each seem to carry their role with grace and humanity. In particular, Staten Island is unforgettable as a portrait of a forgotten island, that must overcome her bitterness and resentment to embrace the change that the living city demands. Manhattan is a place where an outsider goes to forget his past, reinvent the self in the city that never sleeps, and, of course, Manhattan, the avatar, has forgotten his past. Brooklynn, however, is all past, all wrapped up in the fabric of the city’s culture and politics. She’s both a retired semi-famous DJ, and a city councilwoman with a teenage daughter. She bridges all the different communities of culture and politics in her place and space that she perhaps did not even need to be imbued with the power of the avatar spirit to be a living embodiment of her place in the world. Each of the avatars are painted with such a cautious brush, and a carefully loving one, with well-thought out depth to their powers and positions in life. No doubt, there is a notebook somewhere written out with all sorts of ideas the author had of how to embody each place, carefully constructed and culled and reconstructed in a mass of notes, until we have these final portrayals on the page. This is a good thing. Great care was taken when making this book.

I have said very little about the thing, itself. There are so many major reviews of it, now. I don’t know what to add to that debate, to that discourse. The line-by-line prose is lovely. The characters feel raw and true and well-wrought. The way evil works is of the moment, of our moment. This is our evil. This is the book that will teach us how to fight that evil.

Pick up a copy and check it out, if you’re able.

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