Jemisin takes readers on a wild ride in her newest book, an enigmatic and multilayered urban fantasy.Literature Review
Jemisin may tell readers what her book’s purpose is right off the bat, but the magnificent rollercoaster that is The City We Became quickly reveals that this urban fantasy is enigmatic and multilayered. With fantastical characterization and fluid transitions, Jemisin employs a modern inflection of magical realism, following a young grad student, a Lenape gallery director, and a politician/mother as they move through and embody New York City.
Each character in the novel represents a New York City borough. A third person omniscient, quasi-narrator kicks off the story and is pushed into exploring New York City by their right-hand man Paulo. From there we’re introduced to Manhattan, a racially ambiguous grad student who goes by Manny. We are then introduced to Brooklyn, a black rap artist turned lawyer and city councilwoman. The Bronx is next, a tough as nails Lenape woman who runs a gallery. And last but not least is Staten Island, a self-isolating, somewhat racist Irish American woman.
Predominantly through Manny, we travel throughout the City and observe the borough "avatars" interact with other characters used as devices to personify each neighborhood we meet them in. For example, while on the Penn train, Manny gets help from a mother-daughter duo, both "black-haired, freckled, frank-faced Asian people," and a portly Puerto Rican man named Douglas. Jemisin uses sparkling imagery and enigmatic character development to bring these characters alive and show the different experiences and perspectives in Manhattan.
The central challenges the principal characters face are navigating the City and understanding their place within it. Jemisin meticulously creates a personality for each borough, primarily through the main characters being unsure of who they are and seeking out that information from their surroundings. It’s an extremely smart choice, metaphoric for the reader experience, and the unique experience of living in New York City.
In this quest, Jemisin interweaves commentary on race relations in New York City. Staten Island’s less than friendly interactions with the other boroughs and side characters represent a nuanced racial tension. Staten Island doesn’t say anything that screams "racism" from the tip of your tongue, but rather shows bias in the character’s refusal to interact with the other boroughs along their "quest" on those grounds. Staten Island is also the only eurocentric character, very much mimicking the real Staten Island, and its juxtaposition to the rest of the City.
Fantasy as a literary genre rarely represents voices and narratives of color. The space is in desperate need of stories that are led by black and brown voices. It’s something I’ve never seen before, and why this novel is extremely important. By showing these ethnically diverse perspectives in a City that is one of the world’s cultural epicenters, Jemisin ushers in a fanbase that is typically not catered to in the fantasy and science fiction space. This is what makes this novel particularly special. Setting these narratives within a fantasy novel shows black and brown readers that they exist in this space. This genre is just as representative and accessible to them as it is to their white counterparts.
Moreover, there are a plethora of conversations happening about race, especially in this sociopolitical climate. Talking about racial tensions in America in a different arena, such as fantasy, will educate the masses in a different way, hopefully putting an end the ignorance that facilitates racism.
A whirlwind novel you’ll read over and over again, The City We Became marks the start of an evolution in fantasy and speculative fiction, led by the incomparable N.K Jemisin.
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