Book Review: “The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin

“Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.”

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.

I think I’ve done it. I’ve found my favorite book of 2020.

Given my newfound love of N.K. Jemisin, I went into this book expecting to love it. I even anticipated rating it 5 stars. Spoiler alert: I did on both counts.

The City We Became is absolutely incredible. This is some of Jemisin’s best work yet and all this woman writes are masterpieces. I don’t even know where to begin praising this book.

Okay, let’s start with the overall concept and magic system. It is weird in the best way. Six people essentially become living embodiments of the five boroughs of New York City (the sixth the avatar of the city as a whole). NYC is alive in this story, a being as real as you or me. There’s an entity known alternatively as the Enemy and the Woman in White who wants to kill this newborn city. It’s fascinating watching each borough discover what they can do and horrifying realizing how much the Woman in White is truly capable of.

These boroughs— these characters— and their compatriots are beautifully flawed. I love each and every one of them. Well, except for Aislyn. She’s a huge racist. But the other characters— Manny, Brooklyn, Bronca, Padmini, and Veneza— I love. My favorite relationship is the mother-daughter dynamic Bronca and Veneza have. It made me emotional on more than one occasion and even made me cry a little.

The plot is exciting, the potential consequences harrowing. My heart started racing leading up to the climax. I came to care so much not only for these characters, but New York itself. Though, in the case of The City We Became, NYC is just as much a character as the humans.

Jemisin has drawn from writers like Lovecraft for inspiration in her magic system and world-building, but taken those concepts and made them her own. It’s both a criticism of his racist works and ideals and a new concept in its own right.

Speaking of which, there are some great conversations here about how systemic racism and sexism impact people, especially women, of color and their communities. There’s very pointed critique against white supremacy and the insidious ways in infects our country. It’s inherently related to the supernatural danger our heroes now face.

Reading this book was such a wonderful experience for me. It truly reminded me why I love reading so much. Every time I put this book down, all I could do was think about how incredible it is and that I couldn’t wait to pick it back up. Sometimes I had to pause for a minute or two just to bask in what I’d just read. Do I recommend this book? Abso-fucking-lutely I do.

Though this is only my second N.K. Jemisin book, I think she’s already become my new favorite writer. I would honestly read her grocery list and think it was a masterpiece. If you haven’t read anything by Jemisin yet, I highly, highly recommend starting here. It will make you feel reborn.

OwnVoices Black woman, two queer Black men (one explicitly gay), a Lenape (a Native people) lesbian, an Indian woman, a Black and Portuguese woman, an East Asian trans man, a Chinese man, a queer Brazilian man, an East Asian woman, & more

Homophobia/lesbophobia, use of a lesbophobic slur, racism, xenophobia, sexism, emotional abuse from a parent, attempted rape, & mentions of racial profiling

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Have you read The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin? What are your thoughts? Let’s discuss in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Book Review: “The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin

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