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IDEA: Call me simple, but I like my stories human, my characters relatable, my conflict engaging. Cities that are ‘midwifed’ through song and afterwards battle Lovecraftian monsters through human avatars? How can I empathise with that and why should I even care who wins?
RACE: I have always found the inordinate amount of attention Americans pay to race to be tiresome, but this book just crosses a line: The first thing we learn about every single character is their skin colour—down to shade and tone. Every single non-white character is cool, every single white character is racist, narrow-minded, prejudiced and even outright evil. The monster is white (this is repeated so many times that it almost gets nailed to your brain). The only borough that sides with the monster (and whose avatar is all of the above plus feeble-minded) is… well, white again.
If you want to criticise the racism that surely exists in certain segments of (American?) society, engaging in racial stereotyping yourself is probably the worst thing you can do. Just sayin’.
PLOT AND CHARACTERISATION: If you expect something elaborate or—Heaven forbid—structurally bold and experimental like The Fifth Season, you will be sorely disappointed. The plot has a distinct, pulpy feel, almost like a comic book: a cast of diverse, characters of colour battles the white, narrow-minded forces of evil by showing qualities typical for New Yorkers. Basically, Luke Cage Meets the Evil Republican, with all the character depth the title implies.
LANGUAGE: I am anything but a fan of purple prose, but entire sections full of f***ing, dumb-f***, big-ass, etc. just to give the book a ‘street feel’ gets very old, very fast.
SHOW, DON’T TELL: I have always respected Jemisin as an extremely effective, emotionally evocative writer, who can infect you with her feelings and viewpoints almost against your will. Which is why it is extremely surprising that at some point during the writing of this novel, she seems to have forgotten all about ‘show, don’t tell’ and instead chooses to hammer slogans to your brain with a power tool.
LOVECRAFT: While the intertextuality with Lovecraft is hard to miss, its point is more elusive. I think the explanation is very prosaic: This book is just the pinnacle of Jemisin’s perennial crusade against Lovecraft (and his shameful white fan base apparently). And while Lovecraft was certainly bigoted and xenophobic, and his books are undoubtedly inspired by fear of miscegenation and ‘otherness’, he cannot really do anything about it, because 1) he is the product of his time and upbringing; 2) he is dead; 3) he has been DEAD for 80 years, and dead people CANNOT apologise, change opinion or become better persons. What is your excuse, Nora, for doing practically the same, but reversed, in 2020 and even being smugly unsubtle about it?
(I can rant about this and other issues with this book for a couple of more pages, but I think you get my drift.)
And, I say that because the primary storyline of "The City We Became" involves a multi-tentacled foreign invader attaching to various surfaces, popping out of people's skin, and disrupting traffic and general way-of-life. It is variously likened to an afro, or a porcupine, and it is going to require New Yorkers coming together to stop it.
And, I know that the central metaphor is for something completely different -- when we meet the avatar of the invading whiteness she is calling the police on two non-white people in the park; one technique for keeping the white at bay is literally throwing literal money at it. Hey, as NK Jemisin said in her 2018 Hugo award acceptance speech, "[I've been] advised to tone down my allegories. . .I didn't." -- but I'm reading a book here while I'm essentially locked into my house in my city (Baltimore) and the similarity can't be ignored.
That's one thing good books and good stories do : they make the specific universal. And so this book lets me consider the coronavirus, and stitch New York onto Baltimore and consider where we are living and dying and being invaded. . .and I can see the battles between the "real" Baltimore and the white tendrils that I can view from my front porch. And I know "my" Brooklyns and Bronxes and Staten Islands.
So the book itself is an urban Lovecraftian horror(?) story. Also reminiscent of Jeff Vandemeer (more specifically the Ambergris stories), but Lovecraft plays a large role here. . .references to the non-euclidean geometries, Lovecraft's places, and HP himself abound. This book is in a dialogue with his writings, not overtly, and adds just another spice to the stew.
At the top level, this book is a romp with a "we're getting the band back together" vibe. It is filled with various side-quests, while always moving inexorably towards the final Boss fight. I must say that I was hoping for some kind of awesome robot "Form Voltron" moment, but what we get is more true and sensible.
Massive 'over the top' focus on cultural, racial and gender diversity aspect of the story. It does not resonate and becomes boring / overpowering for big sections of the book. Perhaps this is a relflection of cultural new york / US tensions but i've lived in many countries around the world and generally people just dont dwell in this very much compared to the US. In general a potentially great story watered down to just being OK..
I will buy the next books in the series and hope for a bit more focus on the story and less on characterization... quite enough of that already thanks Ms Jemisen :)
Top international reviews
I also noticed the white/non-white bad/good characters. It may not have been intentional but it stood out.
That said, it was an interesting read. The five principal characters are engaging and the villain is well drawn. The whole premise is intriguing - why should one world/universe/city take precedence over another? Why is the villain the villain?
The worst part (for me) was that I disliked the most important character.
Fiction on a next level a definite page turner and coming of as effortless yet lot of research has been put in it to strike the right balance.
N.K Jemisin really brings out the magic in this book that by the end of it, you would be thinking when the next book in this series is coming out.