You know when you read a good book but you know it will just be impossible to summarize OR at least impossible to summarize well? N.K. Jemisin’s novel, The City We Became, is one of those books. It’s the first book in a new trilogy and now I’m bummed that I have to wait for her to finish writing book 2 and 3.
But I have to give you some sort of clue of what it’s about so here goes. New York City is alive or at least it’s trying to be born. Other cities have gone through this—Paris, London, Hong Kong, and Sao Paulo. However, in traditional New York City style, things are not going according to plan The birth of most cities involves one individual becoming the avatar for the city but NYC is five very different boroughs that make up one city. As a result, the lives of six people scattered throughout the city are about to change—a newly arrived graduate student, an aging artist and activist, a former rapper turned politician, a mathematically brilliant international student hoping to win the H-1B lottery, a sheltered and fearful daughter of a policeman, and a Basquiat-like street artist. All are about to find themselves connected to the soul of the city in ways both astonishing and dangerous.
Throw into this mix a malevolent force from another dimension that wants to stop this birth from happening—a force that has already caused “miscarriages” in New Orleans and Port au Prince. This entity wants to remake New York City into a soulless gentrified metropolis and uses all the tools you might expect—Starbuck’s franchises, racist cops, real estate developers, not to mention giant octopus-like tentacles—to keep the five “boroughs” from uniting and finding the person who embodies all of New York.
So that is my attempt at a summary but what I really want to say is, “Read this book.” Just like NYC, there is so much going on here and on a lot of different levels and I devoured it over the course of a few days. It made me look at Chicago (the city nearest to me and nearest to my heart) differently and wonder how and when it might come alive—a sign of an excellent fantasy. You leave its world but its world doesn’t fully leave you.