Hot take: Am I incapable of objectivity because a part of me will always miss NYC? (Yes)
Attempted objectivity, December 2022 Panic Review-a-Thon: Jemisin has once again written a book that appears to appeal to only a small swatch of the reading public. Given the notes above on “objectivity, lack thereof,” I’ll caveat this by saying the population of English-literature-reading public probably does have a plurality in NYC, but nonetheless I’m left with a very similar sense s after I read The City We Became—was this book written just for me?
We pick up in a changed NYC, where Staten Island has been given over to Ryloth, the ur-Universe that just wants everyone to live in homogenous bliss without all this fuss about diversity and design and discourse. The visuals are gleefully, unabashedly Lovecraftian—softly undulating tentacles, monstrous constructs made of subway grates, eerie abandoned cities with never ending right angles. Interspersed is every thought that a New Yorker (or, in my case, a former New Yorker) has—about NYC truisms, the superiority of the Big Apple over every other place on earth, the gotta get it done attitude that is the American calling card.
Because you see, Ryloth (a not-at-all-hidden metaphor for the tidal wave of misinformation and populism and racism and sexism that has overwhelmed civil discourse in this the year of our lord 2022) is an issue for more than just New York, even though it’s only New York being targeted. Other cities—London, Rio, Tokyo—would prefer to ignore the problem and deem it American sensationalism, but the avatars of NYC and its boroughs know better.
Jemisin talks in the author’s note at the end how she initially was thinking of having a trilogy but ended up with a duology because it was, at the end of the day, too much to write about a fantasy world plagued with all the same issues as our modern world. How much you appreciate the story as a whole really comes down to how willing you are to believe that there’s a solution to the ills of modern day. You can sense when Jemisin decided that she wanted a happy ending, because despite 1.75 books describing how the best we can do is stave off utter societal collapse, suddenly things start to change. Staten Island—the stand in for casual not-anti-racists everywhere—realizes that she’s made a bedfellow out of a strange eldritch being who doesn’t actually care about her. People are willing to listen. Constructs (the “essence of cityness” which can be weaponized against the Ryloth) start to work. And there are hidden friends who can provide help when it’s needed.
Which again, is all to say that this book ticked off every box that I needed ticked and I wish I could live in it. It’s a love letter to liberal values surrounded by the ineffable and effable magic of New York City. It’s a paean to what “American exceptionalism” can be, as opposed to what it is. At our best we confront our weaknesses, no matter the pain, to do better. We stand United against the foes of truth and justice. At its best, NYC can be home for anyone, where everyone cares but leaves you alone to become the person you want to be, whoever that might be. I just want to luxuriate in this world (especially the ending) and never leave.