A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Great Cities Duology
by N. K. Jemisin

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 18, 2020
Edits and Addendum on November 15, 2022

Book 1: The City We Became / 2. The World We Make

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There have been quite a few novels and stories of late that have addressed the legacy of H. P. Lovecraft, both as pastiche and as criticism. N. K. Jemisin's latest novel is among the works critical of Lovecraft's racism, using a diverse range of characters to battle the eldritch horrors. Before starting it I re-read the 2016 Hugo-nominated short story, The City Born Great, available online at tor.com. It was the third time reading it I believe, and it's still a very strong story on it's own, but now the premise has been expanded. I didn't realize the prologue to the book is essentially that story, with I think a sentence or two added in the middle, but the ending dropped, for now at least. It may reappear toward the end of the trilogy [correction: it will be just a duology], which has the collective title of The Great Cities. At once a modern day refutation of Lovecraft's influence, it is also an examination of the collective consciousness of inhabitants of a city. Every city has its own ambiance, its own energy. I first noticed the phenomenon while visiting San Francisco, a city alive with vibrancy and creativity. It was completely different from the vibe I got during the short time I lived in Venice, California, and both were as different from my home town as they were different from each other. But what about New York City, which is comprised of five boroughs, as well as other suburbs and exurbs? Each of those has a distinct personality, yet wherever in that mix people reside, they still might identify as New Yorkers. They take pride in their piece of that whole, but can they embrace the other parts when they are all threatened?

Not every city comes alive, but when they do an avatar is selected to represent and defend the city. The avatar of the most recently born city is tasked with helping the newest birth, as midwife if you will. In the original story, an unnamed homeless artist is selected as New York's avatar, with the avatar of Săo Paulo his guide. They battle an incursion from an unearthly realm, are able to stymie, but not defeat, that entity, but the Williamsburg Bridge is destroyed by a tentacled beast. New York's avatar's strength is depleted, and he goes into hiding, and into a coma. At that instance, five other people, in each of the five boroughs, experience weird events, which they later learn are connected. The first we meet is a young man just arriving in Manhattan by train, but the altered reality causes him to lose his memory. He later identifies himself as Manny. He might not know who he is, but almost immediately he knows what he must do. Hailing an old-style Checker Cab, which is only for tourist photos, he directs the driver to FDR Drive, where he attacks another tentacled creature which has stopped traffic, even though it seems only he and his driver can see it. Then we meet Brooklyn Thomason, city council member and former rapper MC Free; Bronca (I don't recall a last name), a Native-American artist and art teacher in the Bronx; Padmini Prakash, Indian immigrant mathematician, whose friends have nicknamed the Queen of Queens. Last is the outlier, the oft-forgotten borough, Staten Island, whose avatar is Aislyn (pronounced like island but without the 'd') Houlihan, a 30-year-old, single Irish-American woman still living with her parents. Aislyn has never left the island, has been warned about the dangers of the rest of the city by her racist policeman father.

Each of these sub-avatars have encounters with a person they identify as the Woman in White, a representative from R'lyeh, an alternate dimension that wishes to move to and take over our reality. Each of them proves strong enough to fight off the incursion in their own borough, except for Aislyn, who capitulates to the Woman in White instead, convinced the other four boroughs don't care about her island. Manny knows they need to find and protect the city's main avatar, but can they do it without a full complement of all boroughs? In addition to the action and suspense, the strength of the book is the disection of the diversity of New York. Manny represents the thousands, tens of thousands, who come to New York each year to seek their fortune in the City That Never Sleeps, many of whom leave their old lives behind to reinvent themselves. The others are described in this bit of exposition: "…belonging is as quintessential to Staten Island-ness as toughness is to the Bronx and starting over is to Queens and weathering change is to Brooklyn…" Another element is how the trans-dimensional incursion mirrors the real world problems of New York, and other cities around the globe. Gentrification that threatens the cohesiveness of ethnic neighborhoods; high finance that prefers cookie-cutter condos to historical buildings. When those forces have the backing of an evil infiltrator the stakes are even higher. The only thing I can criticize about this book is its abrupt end, because I know there is much more to the story, and I would like to be able to read it all now. It still gets a near-perfect 5 stars. Totally different from Jemisin's previous trilogy, but I suspect I'll like it just as much.

UPDATE: Winner of British Science Fiction Association and Locus awards, finalist for Nebula, Hugo, British Fantasy, Ignyte, and Kitschies.


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Posted November 15, 2022
The second and concluding book in the series published two weeks ago. I had put in an advance hold at my library but they are still in the midst of revamping their ordering/stocking system and still don't have it. I lucked into a Twitter giveaway that got me a gift certificate to buy the Kindle version, which worked out great since I had bought the preceding book for Kindle too. I originally thought it was going to be a trilogy, but the story does conclude in this book, and in a very dynamic and spectacular fashion. It has been over two and a half years since the first book, I didn't re-read it, and there were a couple of things forgotten. I will re-read one of these days. Both books are highly recommended.

Aislyn, the avatar of Staten Island, is still aligned with the Woman in White, invader from R'lyeh, but she has started having doubts. She is still fiercely loyal to her island, resentful of the other boroughs, but the WiW has transformed her family and friends into zombie-like automatons, controlled by tentacle appendages which only she can see. Well, the other avatars could see them, if they went to Staten again, but they have stayed away for the three months since the battle there. In Lovecraft's stories R'lyeh was a sunken city in the Pacific where Cthulhu was entombed. Here it is an alternate dimension city, or planet, or possibly a universe unto itself. R'lyeh had attempted incursions into our world before but had been defeated (temporarily) by previously awoken cities. The problem now is that it is not only New York that is threatened, but the entire world, our entire universe, maybe all of the multiverse.

The other borough's avatars were successful in finding New York's original avatar. We still don't know his real name, but he is known as Neek (NYC, get it?). We also don't know Manny's real name, although his memory has returned and he knows who he is, where he is from, and what his original destiny was to have been. He also knows he and his family are wealthy, and he has been able to tap into his accounts, enough to afford a large suite of apartments in Harlem, where several of the other avatars also stay on occasion. Included in that group are non-avatars, or in one case possibly a proto-avatar. Veneza is from Jersey City, which is just as close to the other boroughs as is Staten Island. She pitched in at the battle on Staten, and became a part of the group when Aislyn stepped away from them. If Bel was in the first book I don't remember him, but he is also a resident in the Harlem apartment. Originally from London, Bel is a trans man. R'lyeh is now floating above Staten Island, invisible to all but the avatars and those close to them who are in on the secret. All of the human groups aligned with R'lyeh are still around, primarily the Better New York financial group, which has been buying up properties for development, and evicting the previous occupants, using loopholes in the law to declare them distressed properties. One of those buildings was owned by Brooklyn Thomason's father, home to him, her, and her daughter. Brooklyn will not let that stand. An extreme right-wing Republican Senator decides to run for mayor of New York. Brooklyn, on the city council of that borough, enters the race on the Democratic side.

Something I don't recall from the first book are the full powers the avatars are able to wield. The City has other powers too, not just those controlled by the avatars. When in distress the avatars are able to call on the City to help them, which usually results in ordinary citizens becoming aware of the greater struggle, sometimes even being able to see the alt-dimension being(s). Padmini is able to use that when for a brief time Queens seemed to have reverted to its non-awake state, and in another instance Brooklyn uses it to escape an alt-right group following and harassing her after a debate. Other things about the avatars include an extended life, possibly immortality, although an avatar is not immune to death, as had happened to Kyoto's avatar in the 15th Century. They can also travel teleportation wise (can't recall the term they used), not only within the city, but to other cities on Earth, and in at least one instance Padmini later realizes she has gone to a dead version of Atlantis in another branch of the multiverse. New York's avatars try to get other cities to call a Summit in order to inform them of the threat, and ask for their aid. The younger cities are sympathetic, but most of the older ones are not, arrogant in their age, confident they are not in danger. Oh, but they are. They almost wait too long to realize that.

In spite of the other-worldly chaos, the magical powers of the avatars and of R'lyeh, this is still a very human story. All the avatars are also still human; they have families and friends, history with their communities, and with the City as a whole. Later, when they realize it is not only New York in danger, they embrace their full humanity, feel the connection with everyone and every city on Earth, and beyond. Love and devotion, loyalty and compassion, pride and passion, all power them to do the right thing to protect everyone. At once a grand cosmos-spanning epic, and an intimate disection of what it means to be human, to need those connections for life to have full meaning. Several of the chapter titles are references to songs, altered slightly. In the case of the book as a whole, I think it means "The Love We Take is equal to The World We Make." We have to endeavor to make the world the best it can be, for every person, every city, every country. Excellent in every aspect, another near perfect five stars from me.


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N. K. Jemisin

March 24, 2020

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Finalist for:

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City We Became
World We Make

City We Became
World We Make

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