I have been to New York City exactly one time. I took a red-eye flight from Las Vegas and spent a week walking city blocks during a heatwave. I thought I knew enough about NYC that it would be familiar and welcoming. I was wrong. And the trip mirrors my rocky introduction to The City We Became. It was a difficult book to jump into and N.K. Jemisin’s first title in The Great Cities series has a chaotic start. The story has no build-up and things got super weird quickly. This may be exactly what you want in a book – diving in and getting to the good stuff! However, my confusion after getting thrown into the story was getting in the way and slowing down my reading at first. It was like a tourist standing in the middle of the sidewalk (oh god, is that a selfie stick?) playing defense against New Yorkers on their way to work. I had to make a conscious decision to stop trying to understand every detail and roll with whatever Jemisin threw at me. Only then did I begin to appreciate this unique story.
There is an evil entity from another dimension attacking New York City. A giant white tentacle rises from the ocean and destroys the Williamsburg Bridge, and frond-like substances are attaching to everything in the city. Problem is, only a handful of people can see these events unfolding. NYC is a living, breathing thing in need of protection, so it seeks out individuals to defend its existence. The main characters of this story (Manny, Brooklyn, Aislyn, Bronca, and Padmini) become avatars for the city, and they each represent the borough where they live. But nothing is ever easy in the city that never sleeps. The avatars have no idea what they are or what they need to do, and the enemy is one step ahead.
There is very little worldbuilding. I never fully understood why things were happening or what the evil entity was. There are no established guidelines or rules. There were glimpses of the avatars channeling a ‘power’ to combat the enemy, but it was described vaguely. At one point Manny weaponizes a credit card. Padmini completes a math equation in her head and jumps through time and space. Also, King Kong shows up. This all sounds like the makings of a bad book, but I promise it’s not. It needs to be approached from a different angle. I think The City We Became is more about the characters and their New York-ness and less about the events pushing the story forward. Honestly, the avatars were as clueless as I was, so we were tackling the weird together.
I fell in love with the story through the well-realized avatars. Jemisin characterized the boroughs of NYC and described the city through the eyes of people of varying races, sexual orientations, and backgrounds. It was a powerful experience hearing stories from people who are so often neglected. Diversity was an integral part of the book, and the villain often exploited prejudice and fear to accomplish its goal of taking over the city. And while this interdimensional creature was the main conflict, I was way more intrigued by the characters, their life experiences, and the culture that shaped them. I enjoyed the granular elements of NYC that Jemisin used to describe each borough and how it shaped its avatar and their personalities. This aspect of the book was insanely creative.
Unfortunately, not every avatar was given time to shine. The POVs are not weighted equally, so some of the avatars were fully fleshed out while others were just kind of there. The most love was given to Bronca, who easily became my favorite because she had depth and a colorful perspective. At the extreme end, there was Padmini who tagged along and contributed her concern now and then. She was apparently insanely good at math but I got, like, a New York minute’s worth of detail about that. There were a lot of interesting elements we could have explored with each character, and I mourn for the avatars I didn’t get to know as well.
This book was one of the most unique stories I’ve read in a long time. A city was literally brought to life before my eyes. You might stumble a little at the beginning (What? Like keeping up with New York City is supposed to be easy?), but The City We Became is worth it. This story is more than urban fantasy. It’s about a city, its people, and the diverse cultures infusing its bones. It’s wild and weird and will make you see New York City in an entirely new light.
Rating: The City We Became – 7.0/10