I have to admit: I tried to read N. K. Jemisin’s Fifth Season but had to put it down. The world and premise was good, but something about the style bothered me. I then picked up The City We Became which has an equally interesting premise. I still had some issues with the style, but I did manage to finish it.
The City We Became is set in a world where major cities eventually develop avatars, people who represent the spirit of that place incarnate. Naturally, there are forces which oppose cities gaining this kind of spirit/power. The story opens with an unnamed narrator and someone named Paulo who seem to be trying to guide the narrator through some kind of spiritual growth connected with New York City. Whoever the narrator is ends up becoming an avatar for the city and battling the unknown force, and winning, but the city’s manifestation can’t complete itself because the narrator is somehow injured and passes out. This apparently then results in five new avatars being created, one for each of the five boroughs of the city. Each avatar has to realize what they have become, find their counterparts, and figure out how to stop the bad thing trying to stop their city from becoming what it could be.
The novel alternates between Manny, Bronca, Brooklyn, Padmini, and Aislyn; if the names seem suggestive, that’s because they are. You can basically guess who represents where. It also turns out that, in addition to being connected to the spirit of what their borough represents, each one has a special ability that allows them to connect to the power of their city to fight the bad thing. Once they find each other, they then need to find the individual who represents the city as whole if they want to defeat the threat to what makes NYC alive and itself.
The bad thing manifests itself as tentacular creatures and tentacles sort of sticking to people seems to represent them being taken over. If you’re stuck with a tentacle, it seems to infect you with a particular worst form of yourself. If a fight scene involving a bridge being attacked by tentacles and the heroes being approached by the mysterious but vaguely threatening Woman in White (vaguely threatening until she’s actually threatening) sounds a little Lovecraftian to you, you’re also right. Some of Lovecraft’s signature techniques and stories get directly addressed twice in the novel, including some of the well-known racism attached to certain of his stories. This all fits quite well into the themes of racism and belonging within the novel, but honestly if you have to directly explain your main literary allusion twice, that’s like having to explain your own joke, twice. For me, that’s trying too hard to make a point that’s well enough made without the Lovecraft; catching that allusion for myself, which I did, would have made much more interesting and meaningful. Or at least put it in the afterward that this was basically using Lovecraft vs Lovecraft.
Some of the spiritual stuff that happens is also described in vague enough terms that it didn’t really interest me, and I had to struggle through those parts. Again, it seemed like the story was trying too hard to be “literary”, and it doesn’t need to.
This is an interesting story, with some really timely commentary. It’s pretty good speculative sci-fi/fantasy fiction too. The writing just gets in the way of things sometimes, and I’m now thinking I might know what bothered me about The Fifth Season; maybe I’ll try again with that one.