N. K. Jemisin,
With this fantasy duology, Jemisin confirms once more what a fantastic writer she is, this time tackling cities in an epic and fun story.
A young homeless graffiti artist wanders in New York. When the city comes alive, he becomes its avatar. But an enemy threatens it, coming from another dimension, full of tentacles and white fronds, bent on destroying it. The young artist wins the first fight, then falls exhausted in an enchanted slumber. At this moment, five more people awaken, each of them an avatar for the five boroughs of New York. But the war against the Enemy isn't over and they'll have to pick it up where the graffiti artist left it while discovering their new identities.
The City We Became and The World We Make are very much stories about New York. Each of the five characters that the first novel focuses on represent a borough and embody its characteristic: Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. Happily, the characterisation doesn't stop with just a few traits and they're all well layered. I've particularly enjoyed Queens, a young woman named Padmini, who immigrated from India and who's a maths genius. Her rationalisation of the powers they gain through equations grounded the story effectively and her human qualities makes her very endearing while still showing her strength of character. Brooklyn and the Bronx were also highlights for me, the first one a middle aged Black woman, secure in her place in the world and her power, the other an older Lenape woman, an artist with a no-non-sense attitude and big boots.
Staten Island, on the other hand, is the Karen of the novels and you'll certainly enjoy shouting at her and hoping someone will knock some sense into her. Jemisin nonetheless offers a nuanced portray of her through her family and her fears. That probably won't prevent you from wanting to slap her.
Jemisin's duology is of course an ode to New York by a New Yorker. Nonetheless, she also captures a universal truth: that love/hate relationship we can have with the city we live in. She writes about New York, but it could have been my city or a friend's I discussed the novel with, both located on a different continent.
The novels offer also glimpses of other cities, through their avatars mainly, but I appreciated that Jemisin tried for a global feeling, although awkwardly at times.
The Enemy is a Lovecraftian entity coming from another dimension that wants to erase all the human cities. It allies with racists, entitled dude bros and homophobes, and Jemisin puts her name on the list of other BIPOC writers determined to reclaim and subvert the Lovecraft "heritage" in SFF while offering a satire of her country's politics.
In the end, though, the most American thing in the novel isn't that it's focused on New York and New Yorkers but the "us vs. them" trope.
The City We Became was to me the stronger of the two novels but The World We Make provides a necessary and satisfactory conclusion to the story. It's difficult not to be reminded of the Cold War and the "Pax Americana" but it also tied neatly all the threads and even offered a possible hope for redemption.
Both novels have a fantastic pace and weave seamlessly from action scenes to humour to more intimate moments. Jemisin demonstrates once again her skills as a storyteller and carry us along effortlessly.
The City We Became and The World We Make are fantasy novels that don't shy from current issues but that'll also keep you engrossed in a fast paced, fun, and epic story.
If you've enjoyed The City We Make / The World We Became, you might also enjoy
All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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