This Week's Review at Inklings

The City We Became by NK Jemisin 

Review by Tony Hoffart

The City We Became is a modern fantasy that pulls heavily from the mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft.  Credited with being the father of modern Horror, Lovecraft wrote a mythology in which there were many alien universes. Sometimes these other places bleed into ours and unspeakable horrors would spill forth to cause destruction and madness.  

Lovecraft was also an unabashed racist.  

Jemisin herself is a well-known civil rights advocate, so it would seem incongruous for her to write a serious work featuring the background created by a self-proclaimed racist.  How to acknowledge great art while denouncing the harmful beliefs of an artist is part of an ongoing discourse. This book shows that such a thing is possible.

The story is set in the modern world where cities, once “mature” enough, adopt a human avatar. The Avatar personifies the culture of their realm, is immortal and has magical powers.  “The City”, this time is New York’s Avatar in the process of being born. A hungry, beautiful, ethnically and racially ambiguous boy who is starting to experience the city speaking to him.  As he comes into his power, a Lovecraftian horror,  its trademarked alien and unknowable evil, attacks the city.  This manifests as a terrorist attack on the Williamsburg Bridge. The boy is a fast learner and manages to beat off the invader, but only barely.  Drained from the ordeal, the avatar of New York, falls into a coma.  This is the story’s introduction.

The main characters of the story are the Avatars of the five official boroughs.  Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklin, Queens, and Staten Island.  They awaken to their newfound powers and connection to the city while also being attacked by horrors as well. The alien creatures affect the real world in the form of racists, litigants and online trolls.  This is where the story really comes alive.  The hidden magical world premise is one that has been done before, but it’s a challenge to balance the wonder and danger alongside the mundane concerns of one’s “secret identity”.  In this story the monsters use the monstrous aspects of human nature to gain a foothold in the real world. And as appropriate for Lovecraftian horrors, in this book that’s racism. 

The overall plot is a simple one; bring everyone together to save the city.  That simplicity becomes daunting because each avatar is a strongly independent persona.  The boroughs of New York are known for intense rivalries.  These rivalries are exploited by the adversary to divide and undermine the boroughs in their attempts to form a united front.  The monsters use bland retail chains to buy out beloved institutions damaging  culture and morale of the city; alt right trolls to dox online personas  and chauvinist protests to jam up pivotal moments.  

It takes talent to make our familiar world into something fantastic and magical.  Jemesin has that talent. But writing a new world uses up a lot of plot bandwidth.  Even though substantial, there is obviously a lot still untold. Many of the other cities’ avatars were hinted at.  (Hong Kong and Sao Paulo feature in the story.)  New Orleans is mentioned as a casualty whose avatar was killed in their infancy which manifested in the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. Two more books in this series are promised, and I’m excited to see what else this world has to offer.