The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

The idea that places or cities might have their own unique personalities or ‘souls’ is a theme with a long history, stretching as far back as the Ancient Roman notion of ‘genius loci’. Many urban fantasy writers have created marvellous personifications of the cities they love – for in-stance, the alternative visions of London offered up by Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, or Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.

N.K. Jemisin takes this well-established theme and runs energetically away with it, casting New York and its boroughs as the main characters in a multidimensional drama. In this story, cities are ‘born’ into a kind of sentience once they reach a critical mass of history and culture, then take on human avatars. The birth of a city is a dangerous time, when that city and its inhabitants are vulnerable to attack by extradimensional predators.

The true existential threats to a vibrant and diverse city like New York are real-world problems such as racism, gentrification, corporate overreach, police violence, bland homogeneity – all embodied by the unsettling Woman In White and her reality-bending assault on the boroughs of New York. Jemisin takes the Lovecraft mythos so ubiquitous in her chosen genre and confidently stands it on its head: here, diversity is strength and monoculture is toxic. Starbucks shopfronts become literal ravening beasts; white-supremacist YouTube agitators mass in violent frenzies. Against such enemies, intense localness becomes the strongest form of resistance: the resourceful spirit of Manhattan rides a yellow taxicab into battle like a warhorse; Brooklyn fights off encroaching cosmic horrors with weaponised freestyle rap. This story is an energetic ride: part gleeful love-letter to New York, part reprimand against big-city fear and intolerance. I heartily recommend this big defiant shout of a book.


Ele Jenkins works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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The City We Became

The City We Became

N. K. Jemisin

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