The City We Became: Refreshing Fantasy for a Modern Era

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.

Gideon the Ninth: The Best Fantasy Book of 2019

Lesbian sci-fi space necromancers in an Agatha Christie style murder mystery. That’s the premise of Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. And, honestly, if you’re not already sold, I don’t think we can be friends. 

In all seriousness, though, this is one of the best fantasy books to come out in the last few years. It represents a certain cutting edge of fantasy, fantasy that pushes boundaries, includes marginalized voices, resists tropes, and is, in general, really freaking sick. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants something lively and full of personality.

The plot of the story (no major spoilers) follows Harrowhark, a necromancer princess who lives in the coldest reaches of the solar system, and her sword-slinging cavalier, Gideon. They hate each other and have since birth, but unfortunate circumstances force them to work together. They travel to the home of the immortal emperor, where they must compete with eight other pairs of necromancer and cavalier for the privilege of becoming one of the emperor’s lyctors. What ensues is a tension filled, nail biting mystery as the necromancers and cavaliers engage in a battle royale to solve the clues that the emperor left behind. Solving each of the clues requires coordination between necromancer and cavalier, something Gideon and Harrow have nothing of. 

The book does three things exceedingly well. The first is character. Gideon and Harrow are some of the most fun and likeable protagonists I have ever read. Gideon is consistently badass, sarcastic, blockheaded, and endearing. As the narrator of the story, her voice practically screams from the page. She has such an iconic way of telling stories. Harrow is a perfect foil. Cool, collected, blisteringly intelligent, and often cruel. The dynamic between them is at times humorous, at times frustrating, and at times it’s the most heartwarming thing in the world. In short, I think it’s brilliant. 

The story also has this fantastic intricacy of plot. With a cast of nearly twenty named characters, it might seem intimidating. But each one is so unbelievably memorable that you won’t forget a name. And the ways in which they interact are precise, believable, and complex. The ever changing dynamics of the characters and the mystery of the mansion and of who the emperor is and what it will take to become his lyctor make for some tremendously engaging reading. I was up until four in the morning finishing this book, and I guarantee you will too. 

Finally, the magic of the story is wonderful. Necromancy is a hard magic system. It is bound by rules and requires knowledge and training in order to use. At the same time, though, it’s rules are never explained outright to the reader. We have to piece together the definitions of terms like thanergy or thalergy, we have to learn what occeus matter is. And the discovery process is amazingly fun. It never feels frustrating. No, it always feels like we’re solving a mystery right alongside the characters. Gideon, the narrator, knows as much about necromancy as the reader. Her biting cynicism about the intricacies of necromancy as she swings a massive, ten pound broadsword around with wanton abandon never ceases to crack me up. 

Long story short, I think this is an amazing book. Harrow the Ninth, the sequel, is wildly different but just as pleasing to read. I highly recommend this book for people who like stylized writing, complex character dynamics, and a fascinating and original magic system. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender is Storytelling Perfection

It is rare for a show to grip me so fully as Avatar: The Last Airbender, by Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. I rewatched it last week. I went through the entire sixty episode show in five days. I practically breathed Avatar, I was so invested. 

Avatar tells the story of the titular Avatar, a twelve year old boy named Aang. The Avatar is a being that can control the four elements, water, earth, fire, and air. The Avatar is supposed to serve as a mediator of peace between the four nations of the world, each themed after one of the elements. But Aang runs away from his duties, and with his powers raging out of control, traps himself in an iceberg. 

In his absence, the Fire Nation declared war on the world. A hundred years pass, and two water tribe members, Katara and Sokka, find Aang and break him free from the iceberg. They tell him what has happened, and together they set out on a quest to teach Aang how to control the four elements and defeat the fire nation. All the while, they are chased by the troubled and conflicted Fire Nation prince, Prince Zuko. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender is the only story I have ever experienced that I would call objectively perfect. There are many stories that I find subjectively perfect, that is, stories that I find emotionally resonant for specific and personal reasons. Some of these stories I even enjoy more than Avatar. But Avatar is different. Avatar is a perfect story. 

First, the characters. Not only is each character an absolute joy to watch on screen, each has a level of complexity and depth that I’ve never seen matched. These characters are so well constructed that you can use them as a template for storytelling. They are textbook examples of what makes a character interesting. 

For example, let’s take Prince Zuko. His character arc (I won’t spoil it) is one of the most beautiful, slow-burn, artful evolutions of a character I have ever witnessed. It is meticulously constructed — with side characters like Uncle Iroh and Princess Azula tugging Zuko in different directions, leaving him torn apart. Those two characters represent possibilities for Zuko’s future. Each is compelling. The audience understands why Zuko would choose one or the other (even though we’re screaming at the screen for him to choose Iroh). His personality reflects his anguish, the choices he makes show his confliction. 

An average, imperfect story would allow Zuko to be the only interesting character, and leave Iroh and Azula as static, representative side characters. But Avatar is different. Avatar makes sure that Iroh and Azula — though they serve as narrative foils for Zuko — are each complex and dynamic in their own right. Iroh struggles with his legacy as a fascist military leader, he grieves for his son, and for his surrogate son. Azula is crushed by the weight of responsibility and the desire to succeed, and she turns from a calculated and precise person to an uncontrolled maniac. 

The true beauty of this show is that Zuko has two narrative foils who pull him in different directions. Yet his two foils are complex characters. They have narrative foils pulling them in different directions. And the people pulling them are complex characters, and so on ad infinitum, until the show’s cast is wrapped up together in an astonishing web of deep, emotional relationships. 

Second, the world building. Avatar has exemplary world building. Each aspect of the world ties into the plot and the characters, and visa versa, all of it wrapped up in harmony. The ability to control the elements, “bending”, directly ties to the identities of the four nations, to the landscape itself, to the characters. The creators of the show were deliberate in thinking through the consequences for each choice they made. If a society consists of people who can move mountains, what do their cities look like? If a society consists of people who can fly, what do their cities look like? All of these questions are answered with gorgeous precision. 

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention just how simply fun the show is to watch. Team Avatar — the ragtag collection of protagonists — are ridiculously charming. I watched the most mundane filler episodes with such a broad smile on my face, happy to just watch these hooligans go about their business. 

The animation helps make the show fun to watch. The fight scenes are fluid. The artists took no shortcuts. The action — especially The Last Agni-Kai (if you know you know) — is often stunning. Bending is tied to martial arts. When characters use their magic, you can feel the motion as though you were moving yourself. Earthbending feels strict, solid, abrupt, and unmoving. Waterbending is wavy and dynamic. The animation sells this effect terrifically. 

There are many stories I enjoy more than Avatar. But each of those stories is flawed in a way that I would hesitate to give an unqualified recommendation. If I tell a friend about those stories, I would say, “I love this show. But I have to warn you…”

I don’t have to give a warning when recommending Avatar. Watch this show. Watch it again if you already have.