N. K. Jemisin's THE CITY WE BECAME - Heroes in New York
by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
I'm a sucker for the movie scene when a team--maybe it's gunfighters in the Old West, maybe it's superheroes fighting to save the world--comes together. There's usually been some sort of establishment of backstory, and we come to know the characters individually, diving into each origin story. And then, there's that electricity, that feeling of the whole being more than the sum of its parts, that makes you just know that the good guys (or whoever you're rooting for!) will win.
N. K. Jemisin's The City We Became gave me that same electricity. We have, right at the beginning, a call back to "The City Born Great," a short story from Jemisin's collection How Long 'Til Black Future Month (one of my favorites from an entirely excellent collection!). The avatar--the human stand-in for New York City in the moment of its "birth" (there's a lot of backstory here, but basically, after they've been around for a while, cities are "born" as organisms that exist as independent entities)--is fighting an undefined Enemy who is, at first, disguised as two police officers but then reveals itself to be sort of menacing monstrosity who seeks to kill the avatar and prevent the birth.
Then, we flash to a series of different perspectives, each of five racially diverse avatars who stand for New York's boroughs. Each has a different talent and level of understanding--Manny (Manhattan), for example, arrives in New York to find that he has lost his memory but has instincts that help him to fight the Enemy using cash and credit cards. (Trust me, it makes sense--and is really cool--in the book!)
Anyway, we move through the origin story of each of our heroes, each person serving to add a different personality to the chemistry of the team, each adding his or her own way of fighting the Enemy. The Enemy appears in a number of forms. Sometimes, it's a sort of gigantic, translucent jellyfish tentacle or feather or frond visible only to the avatars (and those few people who need to see the Enemy to help them). At other times, the Enemy comes disguised as a white woman . . . often dressed all in white. (Yes, you should read this symbolically.)
I could go on describing the plot, which is intricate and engaging, but I'll let you discover it for yourself. (I do recommend that you read this one!) Does The City We Became compare to Jemisin's masterpiece, The Broken Earth series? Not quite. Not yet. But it is a lot of fun.
I like the array of characters, the lack of easy resolution, the world building. I really appreciate the way that Jemisin sets this fantasy here, now, and does not hold back her commentary on the insidious ways that the Enemy has infiltrated a number of real institutions and organizations. I have high hopes for the way that the trilogy will develop, the ways that the avatars will come together . . . or not? And I look forward to seeing how Jemisin's commentary on our world takes flight into fantasy as she wrestles with ugliness and heroism both.
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