Book Review

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

a hyper-cautious novel about archetypes avoids offence but also characterisation

January 6th, 2022

It’s already January 2022. How is it already 2022? I haven’t done anything, nothing has happened to me, nothing nothing nothing, since 2019.

I am restless and I am antsy, I am so bored I can barely concentrate. I have spent the first week of the year ill – almost certainly COVID – and it sets the tone for what I am still anticipating will be another year like the last two where I do nothing, be nothing, see nothing, live nothing. Eurgh.

I hate the winter. I hate the cold temperatures and the icy paths and parks, and I hate – more than the ice – all the horrible fucking chemicals pissed all over the pavements to melt the ice that means my dog has to wear shoes (which he hates!) whenever he goes outside here for months every year.

We’re in another lockdown, so even were I not cautiously isolating, I wouldn’t be able to do anything out of the house, not that I do anything, ever. And, as I still haven’t found a way I feel comfortable exercising that isn’t heavy cardio while watching premium television, I’m getting fatter again.

It’s a fucking nightmare.

And add to all this hopelessness and pessimism and winter-affected whatever, the latest N. K. Jemisin, which I decided to read to pick myself out of this fucking horror show, is a real slowburner, and of its 400ish pages, I don’t think I began actively enjoying it until well after page 300.

Maybe it’s because I’m unwell and COVID rots all parts of the body, but this novel (part one of a new trilogy) felt bogged down through chapter after chapter of blunt exposition, all of which can be – and is – summarised in a paragraph or so at the start of the novel.

This is the premise:

When a city becomes a city (a living, breathing, knowable entity), it creates human avatars who embody it, who protect it, who symbolise it and, ultimately, who are it. Outside of our dimension, however, are evil Monsters who don’t want this to happen. They posses reality-blending and mind control powers, but so too do the newly formed city avatars. The novel is about the newly born city of New York City (and its five boroughs) fighting this inter-dimensional villain, with a little bit of help from other global cities and their people-avatars.

The novel takes hundreds of pages to dramatise and re-dramatise that paragraph, and a lot of time is spent making rather banal – though fair – criticisms of homogeneity and global capital and bigotry and right wing politics and how these things are all linked and are all antithetical to cities, and all of this seems to be the implicit metaphor of the novel but then, at some point, it becomes a literal plot point.

In the acknowledgements, Jemisin reveals that she didn’t grow up in New York City, that she hasn’t visited either of the non-American cities which she introduces as characters (Hong Kong and São Paulo), and despite crediting multiple sensitivity readers from various backgrounds and ethnicities, the ways in which each of the human-city characters are evoked as archetypal versions of said places means the book is deliberately running as close to stereotype as can be. It’s not rude or cruel because it’s not mean-spirited, but “Manhattan is like this and Brooklyn is like that” is not a thesis that needs 300 pages to explain.

Every borough of New York City has been evoked in film and literature and music hundreds, thousands, of times, and the collated versions imagined by anyone experienced in the American cultural canon are the same as those Jemisin here provides: these aren’t offensive stereotypes, sure, but they are tropes, and in choosing to lean into these but being hyper-cautious about potential hurt leaves the novel crawling in pace when it doesn’t need to.

The line between an archetype and a stereotype is thin, sure; the spaces in which people are able to find and take offence are everywhere. It’s the reason why the book – ultimately a caper about superhero versions of New York’s boroughs – is only satisfactory when it turns to action, because The City We Became isn’t about fully realised, rounded individuals. The characterisation is – astoundingly for the otherwise stellar Jemisin – very weak here.

It is strange that this novel – the first, to my knowledge, of Jemisin’s books not explicitly set in a fully fictionalised world – is the one with the least believable characters.

The gods of The Inheritance Trilogy and the monsters and living rock of The Broken Earth Trilogy were all more developed than the characters here. At times, yes, it felt under-edited, and I worry, then, that Jemisin’s success and guaranteed sales have reached that point so many successful writers reach, whereby their first drafts get printed in book-form without a real second glance. 

Will I read the rest of this trilogy? Probably.

Will I devour them as quickly and enthusiastically as I did her previous sets of three which I loved? If this is anything to go on, no, I won’t.

But what do I know? I’m sick and I’m sad and I’d like to be in a truly living city.


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