Robyn Reviews: The City We Became

‘The City We Became’ is one of the most inventive urban fantasy novels I’ve ever read. The premise is spectacularly creative and Jemisin carries it out brilliantly, with a real sense of tension and atmosphere throughout. The ending is a little weaker than the rest of the novel, but this is the start of an intended series so some loose ends are inevitable. A highly recommended read.

Every city has a a soul – an identity. When cities get big and established enough, that identity starts to manifest – always choosing a human caretaker for this process. New York is finally coming of age. But New York is too big and too diverse to have just one soul – instead, its got five. Five new city protectors. Each of the five is waking up confused, unsure what’s happening to them as the city takes hold. But they don’t have long to figure things out – for cities have an enemy just as ancient and powerful as them, and its coming for them. The five new protectors must come together and learn to trust each other or it will spell New York’s doom.

Distilling an entire city down into a character is a daunting task. Jemisin makes her job slightly easier by dividing New York in five – each a major New York borough – but its still an unimaginably complex idea. Not being a New Yorker, I can’t say how believable her characterisations are – but I can say that they’re all brilliant, diverse characters, fully fleshed out and powerful. Manny (Manhattan), Bronca (The Bronx), and Aislyn (Staten Island) are given marginally more page time than the others, with Bronca a favourite. An older lesbian artist who marched at Stonewall and spent her entire life fighting the system, she has bags of guts and attitude – but she also feels like she’s fought her fight and it’s time for others to take up the mantle. She wants no part in some sort of war between the city and an ancient enemy, content to help run the Bronx’s art gallery and look out for those who otherwise slip through the cracks. It’s wonderful seeing an older female heroine in fantasy, and it’s fascinating seeing how she views the present day. So much has been achieved since she was young and marching, yet so much hasn’t changed. Her observations on the internet – which has almost entirely passed her by – are also interesting; she makes some very astute points about how protest now is simultaneously easier and harder than it was for her.

There’s always a risk with a novel like this of the characters becoming stereotypes, but all of them feel three-dimensional enough for this to be avoided. They also all have elements the reader can sympathise with – even the enemy. Whilst the setup initially appears to be good versus evil, it turns out to be a lot more complicated – all villains have propaganda which sounds good and rational, otherwise they’d never accrue their power.

The writing is excellent. Each character has a distinct voice, with the writing subtly changing depending on whose perspective is taken. The novel moves at a rapid pace, with constant action and new developments and a permanent undercurrent of tension. There aren’t many plot twists until the end – instead, there’s a gradual accumulation of knowledge, changing the reader’s perspective and understanding alongside the protagonists. The final plot twist is blindsiding but also strangely unsatisfying – it feels like a cop out. It’s a single stain on an otherwise excellent book.

This is an urban fantasy novel, but the fantasy elements have most of their roots in science fiction. Saying more would be a spoiler, but this is definitely a novel with crossover appeal to fans of both genres.

Overall, ‘The City We Became’ is a brilliant urban fantasy novel with a creative premise and strong execution. The pacing makes it a fast and engaging read, and the characters are all complex and intriguing. Elements of the ending are unsatisfying, but otherwise this is another excellent offering by one of fantasy’s greatest contemporary authors. Highly recommended for all fans of fantasy and science fiction, along with anyone who’s been to New York.

Thanks to NetGalley and Orbit for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 24th March 2020 / Paperback: 29th July 2021

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