Top critical review
Reviewed in the United States on April 14, 2020
If you picked this up because you liked Inheritance and The Broken Earth, check your expectations at the door: The City We Became is nothing like them. And while saying that this book has rubbed me the wrong way is an understatement, this is hardly motivated by subjective reasons alone:
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.)