The City We Became
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The City We Became is a fantasy novel published in 2020 by the American author N. K. Jemisin. It is the first book in her forthcoming Great Cities trilogy. Jemisin’s work falls into a grey area; it is sometimes labeled urban fantasy, science fiction, or speculative fiction. She is the first author in history to win three consecutive Hugo Awards, one for each novel in her Broken Earth trilogy. Her work has also won the Locust Award, the Nebula Award, and the Goodreads Reader’s Choice Award.
Like the first book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, The City We Became opens with a nameless character—in this case, a homeless, young Black man who inhabits the rooftops of New York City. He hears bizarre sounds from under the streets, interpreting those sounds through his paintings of strange, gaping orifices. He is befriended by Paulo, a stranger who understands these sounds and takes the young man under his wing. The man is the embodiment, or avatar, of New York City which is being born at this moment, and Paulo, the avatar of Sao Paulo, Brazil, is its midwife. One day, the young man is chased through the streets by shape-shifting creatures from another universe that seek to establish a foothold in the city. As the primary avatar, the young man battles the creatures, but in temporarily defeating them, he is severely wounded, and the Williamsburg Bridge collapses.
Some time later, a young grad student, new to the city, gets off a train at Penn Station. Almost immediately, he is rocked by vertigo and strange visions of an extra-dimensional Manhattan, abandoned and in ruins. In time, he understands that the city is calling him to anoint him the avatar of Manhattan. Forgetting his previous identity, he calls himself Manny. En route to his new apartment, the cab encounters a bad traffic jam on the FDR Drive, and he notices a geyser of weird, white tendrils sprouting from the street. Recognizing these as hostile, he channels his newly acquired city energy to destroy them. Later, he and his roommate, Bel, hike through Inwood Hill Park where they see more white tendrils sprouting from the ground. They are confronted by a Woman in White, the avatar of the Enemy. Manny, with the help of Brooklyn Thomason, the avatar of Brooklyn, drives her away, killing the tendrils.
In rapid succession, Jemisin introduces the rest of her major players: Bronca (the Bronx), an indigenous Lenape woman who runs an arts and cultural center; Aislyn Houlihan (Staten Island), a thirty-something, White librarian; and Padmini Prakash (Queens), an Indian PhD student from Jackson Heights. They first meet the Enemy individually: Bronca in a bathroom stall at the arts center, Padmini in a neighbor’s pool, and Aislyn at the Staten Island Ferry. Like Manny, both Bronca and Padmini find the power to defeat it, at least temporarily. Eventually, four of them heed the call of their respective cities while the fifth, Aislyn, is corrupted by the Woman in White and retreats into the safety of her familiar surroundings.
Having found each other, Manny, Brooklyn, and Padmini take shelter in Brooklyn’s brownstone while trying to locate the other two avatars. That night, Brooklyn notices the white tendrils creeping toward her adjacent brownstone. Using the power of her former self, hip-hop artist MC Free, she harnesses the energy of her borough and vanquishes the tendrils. The next morning, the three set out in search of the Bronx.
Meanwhile, Aislyn’s father brings home a friend, Conall, a fellow Irishman and ostensibly a potential mate for Aislyn. But that night, a drunk Conall tries to rape her, and she summons her own city energy to fling him across the yard. As she walks the streets after the attack, Paulo approaches her, trying to convince her to join forces with the other boroughs, but the Woman in White intervenes, and Aislyn, feeling the rage and power of her home turf, blasts Paulo into unconsciousness.
At the Bronx Arts Center, Bronca is approached by representatives of the Alt Artistes, a group of White, male artists who request a showing of their work. Bronca, along with her colleagues Yijing and Veneza, find the art racist and refuse the request. Veneza then researches the Alt Artistes and finds they have ties to a White supremacist group. Fearing for their safety, Veneza deletes as much personal information from the internet as she can, although the next morning, Bronca finds that her address and phone number were published online. Bronca decides to take refuge in the arts center for the time being. The next morning, she finds the Woman in White perusing the art gallery. She claims to be Dr. White of the Better New York Foundation, and she offers the arts center a $23 million donation in exchange for showing the Alt Artistes’ work. The board eventually refuses, but not before Dr. White reveals her true identity as the avatar of the Enemy.
Manny, Brooklyn, and Padmini eventually find their way to the arts center, and after some squabbling they convince Bronca to join the team. Shortly afterward, an older Asian man, Hong, carries an unconscious Paulo into the center. They realize that only Staten Island could have injured him this way. Hong tells them that there is a sixth avatar, and he needs their help. They understand now that the unknown figure they’ve seen in visions and in the Center’s current art installation is the sixth and primary avatar, New York City, and they can’t defeat the Enemy without him. Manny and Paulo head to Old City Hall, an abandoned subway station to awaken the primary avatar, and Hong, Brooklyn, Bronca, and Padmini drive to Staten Island in search of Aislyn. When they find her, however, she is protected by the Woman in White, and she refuses to join them, summoning her power once again and sending them all back to Manhattan, except for Hong who is teleported back to China.
In the decommissioned subway station, Manny and Paulo find the primary avatar, but they are unable to wake him. The other avatars and Veneza make their way through congested streets to the City Hall station. With only moments before the Enemy plants its own city on top of New York—and one avatar shy of a full five—Veneza awakens as the avatar of Jersey City, a city closer to Manhattan than Staten Island. Together, they awaken the primary, and, channeling their collective power, they blast the Enemy’s city out of the sky, leaving the Woman in White crippled and powerless but still alive with a slim foothold in the only place that she can still survive: Staten Island.
With the Enemy defeated, the avatars relax on the beach at Coney Island, reveling in their victory but aware of the shadow that still hovers over Staten Island. As Paulo prepares to return to Brazil, he informs the avatars that they have been called to The Summit in Paris, a gathering of all awakened cities. They must discuss the Enemy’s new strategy, but for now the six avatars enjoy the moment, confident in the collective resilience of their city.