The 2021 Hugo Nominees: 'The City We Became' by N. K. Jemisin, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The 2021 Hugo Nominees: 'The City We Became' by N. K. Jemisin, Review

Alexander Wallace visits New York.
I will admit to you that I wasn't initially predisposed to like The City We Became. I had read the short story from which the novel was expanded in different contexts twice, and did not like it much either time. As such, I was a tad apprehensive when I started the novel. To my great pleasure, the problem wasn’t the content of the story; it just needed a lot more room to breathe.

The City We Became is N. K. Jemisin’s letter of mostly love to her home city. It is a book immersed in the lore and the culture of New York; in a very real sense, the city is a character (and not just in the way we refer to settings as characters in literary fiction). I’ve previously discussed Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, which is a harrowing portrayal of a possible future New York; it is a wonderful novel, but one written by a man who lived in California for most of his life. Jemisin, on the other hand, spent much time growing up in the city, and it shows.

This is an ensemble cast of many characters of diverse backgrounds, reflecting the real diversity of New York. You have a graduate student who forgets everything about his past when he arrives in town, a former rapper-cum-current councilwoman, an older art curator, and a number of others. Absolutely none of these people are caricatures; for the sheer amount of them, relative to the four hundred-some pages, it is impressive how real she makes all of them.

Some of these characters have had greatness thrust upon them: a metaphysical force, whose nature is never fully explained, has chosen them to be the embodiments of each of New York’s boroughs (for those unfamiliar with the city, these are Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island). Together, they must work together to fight an otherworldly force that finds the continued existence of New York City to be abominable.

As team-building stories will show you time and again, this process is not always an easy one. Being of such different backgrounds, there are naturally culture clashes that complicate the endeavor to save New York from eldritch horrors. All of this feels very real and not the product of mere stereotypes.

Jemisin has a reputation in science fiction and fantasy circles as being a progressive firebrand. The story of The City We Became is very much one undergirded by a fuming rage at injustice in its myriad forms. The New York Police Department is portrayed negatively (but, after the killing of Eric Garner, among others, I can certainly understand the sentiment). There is anger at gentrification (likewise understandable to me, as my own hometown is going to be hit by this hard in a few years). All of this is delivered well; it enhances the plot, rather than overwhelming it. It is a book that passes my Crossley Test.

A book I was once hesitant about is now one of my favorite science fiction and fantasy works released in 2020, and one of my favorites of this year’s Hugo nominees. The City We Became is a triumphant work of both social justice and fantastic storytelling, elegantly balancing on that tightrope. I enjoyed it immensely.

The 2021 Hugo Nominees: Reviews
'Finna' by Nino Cipri
'Ring Shout' by P. Djèlí Clark
'Piranesi' by Susanna Clarke
'Upright Women Wanted' by Sarah Gailey
The Relentless Moon' by Mary Robinette Kowal
'Come Tumbling Down' by Seanan McGuire
'Harrow the Ninth' by Tamsyn Muir
'Riot Baby' by Tochi Onyebuchi
'Black Sun' by Rebecca Roanhorse
'The Empress of Salt and Fortune' by Nghi Vo
'Network Effect' by Martha Wells
The Novelettes
The Short Stories

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.

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