The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin: A review

This book is an amazing work of imagination. N.K. Jemisin imagines that we live in a world where cities become living, sentient beings by picking a human to be their avatar and becoming animate through that person. The avatar is assisted in becoming by the previous city that was "born" through this process. That avatar then becomes the protector of its city and when the city is in danger, the avatar can marshall all the resources of the city to fight for it.

Does this sound weird and crazy? Only at first. Jemisin seduces us into this fantasy world and we accept it and just go with it.

The city of the title is New York and New York's birth is a bit more complicated than some cities because it is made up of five distinct and different boroughs. There is actually a New York City avatar extant at the beginning of this tale, but he had already fought his city's enemies and won temporarily, but it cost him. He is in a coma, hidden away under the city. In order to assist him, the boroughs will each choose its own avatar and they will form a team to defend the city. And there you have the basics of the plot in a nutshell.

The book can be seen as a love letter to New York. Jemisin writes in the afterword: "I have hated this city. I have loved this city. I will fight for this city until it won't have me anymore. This is my homage to the city. Hope I got it right." I can't really say whether she got it right, but it sure sounds to me, from my distance, that she caught the personalities and the spirit of the various boroughs and of the big city as a whole.

We are introduced first to Manny representing Manhattan, a young black man who appears at Penn Station with no memory of how he got there. He has come from someplace else and he had another life and another name, but all of that is wiped clear and he begins anew, as so many have, in New York.

Next, we meet Brooklyn. She is a black middle-aged city councilwoman and former rapper who is devoted to her family.

Bronca for the Bronx is a Lenape Native American woman in her 60s. She is a lesbian. She works in an art gallery and she is very tough because she's had to be. 

Queens is represented by a South Asian graduate student who is something of a whiz at math.

Finally, Staten Island is represented by Aislyn Houlihan, a young white woman who has grown up sheltered by a racist, xenophobic, abusive cop for a father. In time, we learn that she has absorbed his attitudes.

The city will need all of these avatars to survive because there is a powerful Enemy that threatens to devour it. The Enemy comes from another universe and its infectious presence is spreading throughout the city as white, feather-like entities. How each of the avatars responds to this entity, which is represented by a Woman in White, makes for an exciting and thoroughly engrossing story. 

Here is the only real problem I had with the story, once I accepted the author's concept. She gives us something of a backstory for the Enemy which seems to be a way of legitimizing its attempt to take over as a way of ensuring its species survival. It tends to distort the clear lines between "good guy" and "bad guy" and sort of undermines the theme of the book regarding the strength of the city when diverse groups work together.

Nevertheless, this is at base an exciting, joyful, fast-paced tale with a lot of humor that was fun to read. One had the feeling that Jemisin also had fun writing it.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars    


  1. I have this book on my shelves. I will come back and read your review once I read the book. I love this author!

    1. As a fan, I predict you will really like this one.

  2. I'm impressed of her homage to the City ... to write this tale. The various borough reps sound interesting. I'm not much into fantasy but sometimes I make exceptions.

    1. I don't read much fantasy/sci fi either, but I'll always make an exception for Jemisin. Her personification of the various boroughs was the most interesting thing about this book for me. It seemed to me that she got their personalities spot-on.


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