N.K. Jemison pushes boundaries, and it’s exactly what the genre of fantasy needs. The City We Became, released in 2020, is a herald of a new wave of storytelling. Authors like Jemison reject the tropes that have mired fantasy for so long. In a genre that should be without limitations, too many writers impose the limitations of our society on their imagined one. Not so for Jemison; she is a writer whose imagination could never be limited.
The city of New York has become sentient, and its avatar takes the form of a young, Black, queer, homeless man. His point-of-view voice is one of soaring lyricism and rugged language. Reading his perspective feels like listening to a slam poem in a crowded bar. But the avatar of NYC is contested by a nameless Enemy. She attacks New York City with what can only be described as weaponized bigotry; she mobilizes the toxic and oppressive elements of NYC to her cause.
NYC’s avatar, injured and weakened, splits into the five boroughs. Each is given a personality to reflect the identity of the borough. Manhattan is a cutthroat business man who can’t remember his history, Bronx is an old, tough-as-nails artist, Brooklyn is a rapper-turned-councilwoman, Queens is a mathematician with an endless extended family, and Staten Island is a girl trapped in a broken family.
Jemison uses each of the boroughs to explore a distinct issue affecting New York. The Enemy comes to them in different ways, threatening different things they hold dear. The bureaucracy takes Brooklyn’s historic house. Cops try to imprison the avatar of Manhattan for the crime of being dark skinned. White nationalists threaten Bronx’s art museum. Wherever the Enemy goes, she leaves white tendrils in her wake, that cling to structures and people. They’re an eerie representation of the way toxic ideologies can take hold of someone’s mind without them noticing.
What makes this story a pleasure to read is how vivid the characters are. Their personalities are distinct, garish, and instantly likeable. They are perfect representations of their boroughs, their quirks and their endearing flaws. I fell in love with each of them the moment I met them. Even Staten Island, depicted as ignorant and prejudiced, I couldn’t help but sympathize with. I understood how such a vile ideology could take hold in her mind, and I felt her pain as she tried to break free from it.
Not only that, but the characters and the themes of the story mesh perfectly. Each character carries with them a piece of a larger message. Jemison never preaches, she never says things outright. Yet reading this book, I felt radicalized to a larger cause. I felt like I wanted to fight the Enemy, to take hold of her roots and tendrils and rip them out as best I could.
Many character driven, thematically driven stories suffer from an uninteresting premise. The opposite could not be more the case in The City We Became. The plot is an intricate, suspense filled tangle. The characters are always a step behind the Enemy, and they are never given the room to breathe. Their nameless antagonist presses down on them with all the relentless force of the societal institutions she represents.
I hope The City We Became becomes a benchmark for fantasy in this new decade. This story is a gold standard of radical ideas, meaningful representation, and genre-defying innovation. It is book one of a trilogy that Jemison is in the process of writing, and I am so excited for the next installment.