Review: N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became is Almost Great

“All I want to do is paint, man, because it’s in me and I need to get it out. I need to open up this throat. I need to, I need to…yeah. Yeah. There’s a soft, strange sound as I lay down the last streak of black. I pause and look around, confused for a moment – and then the throat sighs behind me. A big, heavy gust of moist air tickles the hairs on my skin…I spend the next two days going all over the city, drawing breathing-holes everywhere, till my paint runs out.” p3, Kindle Version

I’ll begin this review with a confession: this is the first novel I’ve ever read by N. K. Jemisin. If you know me, this will come as a surprise because 1) I love reading works by Black authors, especially women, and 2) I love science fiction and have been getting into fantasy lately. I have, however, read her short story collection How Long ‘til Black Future Month, wherein lives “The City Born Great,” the short story that The City We Became is based on and I remember wanting more when I finished it.

“This is the lesson: Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.” p6, Kindle Version

The City We Became is about the birth of New York City on a multiversal level. In order to succeed, and become a Great City, New York must be represented by a group of avatars who embody its boroughs: Manhattan (human name: forgotten), a young man of ambiguous ethnicity who is new to the city, wealthy, and capable of violence when necessary; Brooklyn (that is her human name), a Black middle-aged former rapper turned city councilwoman; The Bronx (Bronca), a queer elder Lenape artist who runs an art gallery; Queens (Padmini), an Indian financial engineer in New York on a work visa; and Staten Island (Aislyn), a xenophobic white woman in her thirties who lives so far under her everything -ist father’s thumb that she’s never left the Island to visit the city proper. These boroughs are meant to assist the full embodiment of New York, a young, nameless, gay Black artist experiencing homelessness because his mother wouldn’t accept him, with the city’s birth as a Great City. New York is just the second city in the New World to be born – the first was Sao Paulo, who has arrived to assist with this new birth. But there is an enemy, represented by the Woman in White, who is using unprecedented tactics to prevent the full development of New York.

I don’t know New York City well enough to know if these characters are great representations of these boroughs, but the novel made me believe that they are and their personalities are vivid and well-defined. We spend several chapters with each one getting to know them, their work, and the people they care about (if they have any), which ends up being important because the Woman in White’s attacks against them are deeply personal. And even their flaws – their tempers, their biases, their selfish tendencies, are treated with understanding because though they might be mini-cities, they are still, also, human. Staten Island is the Queen of all Karens, literally teleporting people of color “back to where they came from,” but we still get a bit of insight into why:

“There is an instant in which Aislyn’s mind tries to signal an alarm, doom, existential threat, all the usual fight-or-flight signals that are the job of the lizard brain…Three things stop her. The first and most atavistic is that everything in her life has programmed her to associate evil with specific, easily definable things. Dark skin. Ugly people with scars or eye patches or wheelchairs. Men. The Woman in White is the visual opposite of everything Aislyn has been taught to fear, and so…Aislyn also thinks, Well, she looks all right.” p333, Kindle Version.

What is less well-defined is some of their powers, which they all developed at the beginning of New York’s birth and all get a chance to use at least once in their own confrontations with either the Woman in White herself or some of her creations. These characters may reappear in later books in this trilogy, so hopefully their powers will be more clearly defined then.

Another thing that I hope is more clearly defined is the mechanics of how a city is chosen to be a Great City – the explanation given feels vague, and it’s explained that both New Orleans and Port-au-Prince tried and failed at being born Great Cities, and their respective natural disasters were what ensued. I think my issue is that because I don’t know what makes a city qualify for this process, I don’t buy that either New Orleans or Port-au-Prince would have been considered before New York, which makes me feel like those two cities were chosen because they had major natural disasters that could be used as an example for the plot.

The main criticism I have, though, is that there are a lot of scenes of the characters talking about what they should do instead of actually doing anything. As someone who has done screenwriting, you’re always told to show, don’t tell. I know that with novels it’s different – we want description, and development, and rumination – but when I get 62 pages of the main characters standing in an office arguing about what they should do, split between two chapters near what my Kindle app tells me is the 80% mark, I can’t help but suspect that the climax of the novel that I’m reading is going to be disappointing. It kind of is – beautifully written, but it feels small and distant considering the stakes.

This is a trilogy, again, so I’m assuming that this is not the largest battle that these characters will have to fight and despite my criticisms, I am looking forward to spending more time with these characters and seeing how this world is expanded in the next novel and what other cities might be born. Another thing that I loved, aside from the character building, were the moments of great humor. I’ll leave you with monologue that I wish I’d written myself:
“There are remarkably few of your kind who actually do that…I expected much more motherfucking, when I first came to this city…given how often New Yorkers use the term, I honestly thought there would be mothers getting fucked in every alley. A veritable plague of mother-fucking, unless of course mothers like being fucked, which I presume they do. Then I suppose I should call it a bounty of mother-fucking. But there really isn’t that much at all. Strange.” p251, Kindle Version

Denise Jena Moore is a New Orleans based actress, writer, and bookworm. She has written and performed in plays, short films, a web series, and video sketches, and currently spends most of her time writing and performing in live sketches around New Orleans with No Lye Comedy, a New Orleans based collective of black femme comedians, and dreaming about men who aren’t good enough for her. Find out more at www.denisejena.com