The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin is as much an ode to New York City as a fantasy novel about a sentient city. You don’t have to be familiar with the city to hear the pride underlining each sentence. The heroes are harsh and bristly but lovable. Moreover, they are perfect representations of the boroughs they embody. Along with being a trippy story about cities as people, The City We Became is a love story to each inhabitant’s quirks and foibles, making New York City what it is.
After a slow start, the story hits its stride thanks to the characters as they strive to stop a mysterious enemy. Half of the novel’s fun is meeting each avatar and understanding how they represent their borough. Brooklyn, with her street past but a polished veneer; Manny, with his cutthroat nature and everyman appearance, their secrets reveal themselves to you slowly but not so slowly as to impede the story. The best part is that if you are like me and have never been to NYC, you don’t miss out on the fun of deciphering the character traits. Ms. Jemisin makes some very obvious without straying into stereotypes or caricatures of each borough.
What made The City We Became a stellar book for me was the narrator. Without Robin Miles’ performance, I would not have finished the book. Ms. Miles, more than anything, helped me understand the differences between each borough, which helped me understand the story. She does a stellar job differentiating between the various borough accents and differing nationalities, ages, races, and genders. She is so good that it felt like I was listening to a full-cast audio production. By the end, I became so impressed with her performance that I immediately downloaded the sequel to continue listening to her.
The City We Became is such an odd story, simple to describe, yet it was not easy to understand at first. Ms. Jemisin jumps right into the action, and you only understand what happened after the fact as each avatar comes into their powers. I believe having an intimate knowledge of the city also helps one’s enjoyment of the story. While I understood enough to delight in the little eccentricities Ms. Jemisin adds to each avatar, I know there are more I did not catch simply because I haven’t been there. Still, what I got I loved, and I credit Ms. Miles’ performance for taking Ms. Jemisin’s words and bringing them to life.