The Great Cities Trilogy
by N. K. Jemisin
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 18, 2020
Book 1: The City We Became
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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 The City We Became I re-read Jemisin's 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, 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 the 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 has proven 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 and 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.
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