Review: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

Review: The City We Became by N.K. JemisinThe City We Became (Great Cities #1) by N.K. Jemisin
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Great Cities #1
Pages: 437
Published by Orbit on March 24, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Five New Yorkers must come together in order to defend their city in the first book of a stunning new series by Hugo award-winning and NYT bestselling author N. K. Jemisin.

Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She's got five.

But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.

My Review:

Four years ago, N.K.Jemisin published what was then a standalone short story, The City Born Great. It’s the story of a city, specifically New York City, as it is born, or perhaps reborn, as one of the great, self-aware and self-conscious cities of the world. It’s also the story of the city choosing its combination midwife and avatar, a young black man, a homeless graffiti artist, who embodies the city in all of its grand, glorious and sometimes shady history and all of its sprawling, brawling glory. And who directs and embodies its fight to be born against the wishes and will of a great, but nameless and faceless, enemy.

The story was also included in the author’s 2018 collection, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

But the original story ended on a happy note, with New York City’s avatar on his way to help the next new city, Los Angeles, with its imminent birth and induction into the ranks of the “great cities”.

That original story is included as the prologue to The City We Became, but without that happy ending. Instead, the newly born New York City wins his battle, but is forced to withdraw from the field to heal his grievous wounds.

And that’s where this marvelous book, the opening chapter in a projected trilogy, begins. With the central avatar out of the picture, and the avatars of the cities that make NYC what it is, the avatars of the 5 boroughs, coming to awareness of their roles with absolutely no help or guidance – while the battle their primary fought moves to a new and even more potentially catastrophic phase.

The personifications of those five boroughs, those places that could be cities in their own right, have a job to do. Find the primary, become the city they were meant to be, and send the forces of their great enemy back to the shadows from which they sprang.

But the enemy’s avatar will not go quietly – and she has one of their own tucked tightly into her rapacious grasp.

Escape Rating A++: I’m pretty sure that this is next year’s Hugo AND Nebula winner for Best Novel. I can’t believe I’m saying that and the year still has 8 months to go, but this story was so marvelous that I can’t believe anything will top it the rest of the year. (Not that there isn’t plenty of interesting SFF yet to come, but this one is just beyond awesome.)

There have been plenty of stories wrapped around the concept of a genius loci, or spirit of a place, including last year’s marvelous Silver in the Wood. But The City We Became takes that concept to a whole new level, with the city not just having one, but six of them (the plural is genii locorum). The way that this story takes that concept and magnifies into a race of such “city beings”, with hints of a society of them, works so well it feels like it has always existed. That there is a council of such beings, and that they have a great enemy, moves the concept from its origin in Roman religion (I said there were plenty) right into SF and Fantasy. And that’s kind of where this story sits, squarely on the borderline between the two genres.

It reads as SFnal, but the fantasy feels like the story’s true home – especially after the big reveal near the end! But those SFnal elements are definitely there, especially the element of SF as a romance of political agency. Because the machinations of political agency and political corruption turn out to play a much bigger role than that council of city avatars originally believed.

At the same time, while the story is building and we are getting to know these people and places – and the places/people – the operations of the Woman in White, the embodiment and avatar of the great enemy, reminded me so very much of the operations of the Black Thing on Camazotz in A Wrinkle in Time.

There are also oodles of Lovecraftian allusions scattered throughout the story, to the point where Lovecraft becomes Chekhov’s Gun. But I was still shocked and awed when the Woman in White turns out to be the avatar of R’lyeh, the lost city of the Cthulhu Mythos. If her mysterious boss turns out to be the Great Old One himself it’s going to be seriously – and marvelously – freaky. But I’m guessing, we don’t know yet.

What we do know is that this is a well-thought out and marvelously written story of the battle for the soul of the city, rife with allusions to NYC’s beliefs in itself and fights with itself. The individual avatars are distinct characters that blend the ethos of each of their boroughs with the characters they are as individual humans. They don’t become the boroughs, they embody the boroughs because they already do.

The avatars of the NYC boroughs have to find a way to work together, even as all of their instincts tell them to fight. And also tell them that they can’t win without their missing member, the reluctant, stand-offish, contrary and captured Staten Island. They’ve almost lost hope, until they figure out that the city they are becoming isn’t about geography, it’s about being in “A New York State of Mind”.

I loved this author’s, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I bounced hard, multiple times, off of her Hugo-Award winning Broken Earth series. But The City We Become isn’t like either of those. It’s its own wonderful thing. It’s also absolutely the best thing I’ve read this year so far, and I’m not expecting much, if anything, to top it. What I am expecting, and am, in fact, eagerly awaiting, is the second book in the trilogy. May it be soon!

Review: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin

Review: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month by N.K. JemisinHow Long 'til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 416
Published by Orbit on November 27, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In these stories, Jemisin sharply examines modern society, infusing magic into the mundane, and drawing deft parallels in the fantasy realms of her imagination. Dragons and hateful spirits haunt the flooded city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow south must figure out how to save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

My Review:

Have you ever taken a good, hard look at which groups get special “days” or “months” and which ones don’t? There’s no such thing as “WASP month” to celebrate White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants, because they are considered the so-called “norm” even though they are increasingly not the majority even in the U.S. Especially when you take out the FEMALE WASPs, because Women’s History Month is its own thing, along with holidays and/or months that celebrate non-Anglo origins, non-Christian religions, and, particularly relevant to this book (and this month) non-White people.

It’s a damn good question, isn’t it? Just how long will it be until everyone is celebrated all the damn time, and we don’t need to call out non-male (also non-straight and non-cis) people? How long will it be until Black Future Month?

As the author points out, there has been very little science fiction that includes non-white characters or posits a future as seen from the perspective of people of color. Also relatively few from a female perspective, or a non-cis, non-het perspective, or, again, any perspective other than male WASPs.

I’m not going to include treatments of religion in the future because that’s all over the map in its own way. My favorite treatment of Earth religions in the future is the Babylon 5 episode The Parliament of Dreams. And I really am digressing this time.

I recognize that I’m talking around the book, rather than about the book. I’m trying not to just SQUEE and it’s hard.

On my one hand, the collection is absolutely awesome from beginning to end. I loved every story, and that’s extremely rare for me in a short story collection.

On my other hand, all of the stories in this collection have been previously published. So anyone who follows this author has probably read some if not all of them. But for those looking at this author for the first time after her record-setting accomplishment of winning the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row (for three books in a trilogy at that), this is a great (and accessible) place to start.

Personally speaking, I loved her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms but bounced hard off The Fifth Season – twice. After reading this collection, I’ll try it again – probably in audio this time.

Escape Rating A+: This is a marvelous collection of this author’s short works, providing a set of wonderfully readable stories, introducing new readers to a terrific, award-winning author (these two things are unfortunately not always synonymous), providing a perspective on the development of said author, a bit of dialog with the history of the genre, and, last but definitely not least, making any reader of SF wonder why the historical perspective of the genre (ironic, I know) has been so narrow-visioned.

A great read from beginning to end!