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Review: The City We Became

The City We Became

Title: The City We Became
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Page Count: 448
Published by: Orbit Books
Date Published: March 24, 2020
You can find it here: Bookshop.org


Every city has a soul. Some are ancient, some are new, some have been lost to time and fallen from memory. Every city has a human avatar that is responsible for its protection, its identity, and keeping it safe from the destructive Lovecraftian evil that wants to eliminate them.

New York is ready to be born, but something happens to the primary avatar during the last stages of birth, thus awakening 5 secondary avatars – one for each borough. Manhattan is a multiracial grad student; Brooklyn is an African American rap star turned lawyer; Queens is an Indian math whiz; the Bronx is a tough Lenape woman; and Staten Island is an Irish American woman who wants nothing to do with the other four. Together they must band together to save the primary avatar from a dark, ancient evil set on destroying it.


I wanted to like this book so badly. I wanted to exclaim that I have finally read the great N.K. Jemisin and this is now my favourite author and favourite book of 2020. Admittedly, that is a lot of pressure going into a book, but I was ready to have my socks knocked off by a literary titan. Bring on the socio-political commentary, bring on the harsh truths, painful realities, and exposure of the systemic racism in our North American culture! B-R-I-N-G it!!

It was, painfully, a mess for me. Seven different points of view (7!) warring for space amidst huge sections of information overloading left me reeling in a place of continually confounded frustration. We never stay with any one character long enough to form attachment or connection. Chapters would often drown in tangential thoughts that were overwhelmingly distracting, in addition to supremely hard to follow sequences of science fiction violence and action.

The novel does deliver on the systemic racist conversation I was hoping for – portraying profound truths and brutal commentary on everything from police brutality, gentrification, white supremacy, xenophobia, and “all lives matter”. If for nothing else, I am glad I read this for those discussions.

While this is definitely a “f*ck you” to racist Lovecraft – bringing a racially charged portrayal of Lovecraftian ideas and monsters into a modern setting, it just wasn’t enough to combat the struggles I had sorting out the combative points of view, the overwhelming, swirling pages of “essay-style” critique, and the difficult to follow scenes of science fiction. It was a tough chew that felt much longer than its 488 page count. The astonishingly powerful commentary on the racist fabric of our culture; gentrification, police brutality, and xenophobia, are the standout of this novel and Jemisin’s voice is powerful like thunder … however, the book failed to coalesce for me. I will absolutely read more Jemisin in the future, this just wasn’t the place to start.

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