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Literature / The City We Became

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“Come, then, City That Never Sleeps. Let me show you what lurks in the empty spaces where nightmares dare not tread.”

The City We Became is a 2020 novel by N. K. Jemisin. It is the first volume of the Urban Fantasy series The City. It takes place in a world where great cities acquire sentience through human avatars. In New York City, a group of avatars of New York, each representing their respective five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island) as well as of the whole city New York City as a whole emerges to face a supernatural threat.


The City We Became contains examples of:

  • 11th-Hour Superpower: Veneza, Bronca's protege at the art center, shows flashes of magical sensitivity for the whole book. When it becomes clear that Aislyn's betrayed them, she gets an emergency upgrade and becomes the avatar of Jersey City (considered a "sixth borough" of NYC). Her presence allows New York prime to fully power up.
  • Abusive Parents: Aislyn's father is a controlling, emotionally abusive, misogynistic bigot. She loves him, but she's also frightened of him, and knows that if she were ever in real trouble, she couldn't trust him to help.
  • Accidental Murder: On a large scale. When she freaks out and attacks Paulo, Aislyn strikes the city as well as the incarnation, not realizing that's what she's doing, which causes a horrific earthquake.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Invoked; Manny does in fact have a specific ethnicity, but everyone who looks at him assumes he shares their heritage somewhere along the line, as part of his power subtly influencing people to trust him.
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  • Anthropomorphic Personification: The five boroughs of New York and New York city as a whole are incarnated into six avatars that represent their social essence.
  • Awful Truth: New York is actually the second city to have multiple avatars—the first was London, and something terrible happened when it incarnated, which has all the other cities on edge about New York. London Prime somehow ate her other avatars, and is still incredibly traumatized. Hong Kong believes this is a feature of having multiple avatars, and drops the news that they'll probably get subsumed on the boroughs with little fanfare. Ultimately, however, they avoid this fate.
  • Bad Powers, Good People: Manny, as the avatar of the borough "where money talks and bullshit walks", has powers that essentially come down to emotional manipulation and magical late capitalism, as well as a nasty set of skills from his former life, but he's firmly one of the good guys.
  • Batman Gambit: To solidify her control over Aislyn, the Woman in White deliberately puts Aislyn in the path of a rapey neo-Nazi when she realizes Paulo is coming to Staten Island, knowing the man will attack. This means Aislyn is terrified and off-balance, allowing the Woman to manipulate her into attacking Paulo with a combination of fear and ingrained racism.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Hurricane Katrina and the botching of aid in the aftermath are suggested to have been influenced, if not caused by, the Woman in White, as a way to make it easier to kill New Orleans.
  • Big Applesauce: The story is set in New York.
  • Brutal Honesty: The Woman In White makes no secret of the fact that she considers humans, and especially cities, to be abominations; that she intends to destroy the city and use it as a stepping stone to destroy the universe; and that the only reward for allying with her is to die last and more peacefully. Staten Island hates the rest of the City too much to care.
  • Cast of Personifications: The main characters embody social and historical aspects of New York and its boroughs:
    • Bronca is an older boisterous Lenape artist, embodying the first inhabitants of New York and the scrappy, artsy side of the Bronx.
    • Brooklyn is a black middle-aged former rapper, lawyer, and current city councilwoman. She embodies both the popular bohemian past of Brooklyn and its current gentrification.
    • Padmini is a 25-year-old Tamil immigrant graduate student, reflecting the multiculturalism of Queens.
    • Manny is a smart-looking ruthless mixed-race guy, embodying the business and strategist mentality of Manhattan.
    • Aislyn is a timid and mousy white woman somewhat afraid of the other, bigger, boroughs, reflecting the more white and conservative leaning of Staten Island, as well as the feeling of neglect that suburban Staten Island residents may feel in regards of the other, more urban, boroughs.
  • Cast Full of Gay: Most characters are LGBTQI.
  • Combat Pragmatist: The Enemy never kept to the rules of engagement it had supposedly agreed to with the cities, and even set up a multinational corporation whose purpose is to destroy cities' individuality so they might never be born, or to weaken and sabotage them if they are. The older cities come to suspect that this is how it arranged the assassination of the avatar of New Orleans.
  • Dirty Cop: Aislyn's father arrests someone and charges them with assault for no other reason than they were the wrong color and in the wrong neighborhood (i.e., his).
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Enemy is explicitly and repeatedly called one, word for word. It is an immense, ancient horror from an incomprehensible universe, and it has nothing but ill will for cities and humanity in general. It manifests on Earth in a variety of forms, including feathery white tendrils of various sizes, two-dimensional spider monsters, and - most prominently - the Woman in White. Fittingly, the Enemy turns out to be R'lyeh.
  • Everyone Has Standards: It's strongly implied that even the NYPD find Aislyn's father's behavior unacceptable, which is why he has no friends at work and hasn't made detective despite thirty years of trying.
  • Five-Token Band: Fitting the ethnic and cultural diversity of New York City. Also played with as the main cast has no White Male Lead, like the usual iterations of this trope.
  • Freudian Excuse Is No Excuse:
    • It's clear Aislyn's prejudices and issues stem from being raised by an emotionally abusive bigot, and the narrative presents how terrible her home life is sympathetically, but it's equally clear that as a grown woman she has the chance to learn better, and not taking it is on her.
    • This also applies to Brooklyn when Bronca calls her out for some violently homophobic lyrics she wrote back during her career as MC Free. Brooklyn acknowledges that the sexism and homophobia she herself was facing from the male MCs on the scene doesn't make it okay.
  • Genius Loci: The main characters are this to New York and its boroughs. In fact, all the major cities in this world get one or several: Sao Paolo is a secondary character in the book; and Hong Kong, Lagos and Paris are mentioned. The Woman in White is also one - namely, R'lyeh.
  • Heroic RRoD: New York is too big for one person to handle all of it; the prime avatar is able to briefly channel the entire city to beat back the Woman In White's initial attack, but the effort nearly kills him and he spends nearly the whole book in a magical coma as a result.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The Woman in White appears to be a white (Caucasian) woman with white hair and all-white clothing, but she doesn't even bother hiding that she's something utterly inhuman and alien. Her other features vary considerably between appearances, and is once described as having unnatural and unsettling beauty. She is simply an avatar of the Enemy, and R'lyeh contains many Women in White.
  • It Is Pronounced Tropay: You might expect Aislyn's name to be pronounced "Ash-lyn" (the Irish way), but her parents Americanized it, so it sounds like "island" (as in "Staten Island", of course). The audiobook pronounces it as "Eyes-land".
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: The last section of any audiobook tends to have the information about the author, the narrator, the production and copyright etc read by the narrator in a more removed tone of voice, different from their 'narration voice' or any of the character voices they take on. In The City We Became that section is read in the Woman In White's voice, dripping with insincere warmth and sarcasm. Then she laughs.
  • Light Is Not Good: Everything associated with the Enemy is a stark, stale white.
  • Love at First Sight: When Manny, Brooklyn, and Padmini coming together triggers a vision of the prime avatar, Manny falls for him hard.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Bronca is gay and so was her late husband, but they stayed married because they did genuinely like each other, even if they weren't in love, they wanted to have kids, and it was safer to appear straight.
  • Meaningful Name: Several of the avatars have names that sound like their borough's name—or, in Brooklyn's case, just have exactly the same name.
  • Ms. Exposition: Because Bronca's the oldest, New York decides she's the one who can handle knowing all the background information, so she has to tell the others how stuff works.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: The Enemy has spent millennia pretending to be a rampaging beast so the cities don't recognize its ability to plan ahead and weaken cities before they're born.
  • Obliviously Evil: The birth of a city collapses thousands of realities into non-existence, killing trillions of people or even rendering them Deader Than Dead. But there is no way for the avatars of the city to know this until after the city is born.
  • Personal Hate Before Common Goals: The Enemy openly declares that she's there to destroy the universe. Staten Island wants to see the other boroughs go to Hell so badly that she's okay with this.
  • Personality Powers:
    • Timid Aislyn can turn invisible.
    • Brooklyn is a former rapper and she channels her power through music.
    • Padmini is a graduate student that uses mental mathematical equations to shape reality.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: While the Woman in White is too inhuman to properly feel mortal prejudices (she's good at Fantastic Racism, though), bigots are easier for her to influence than most, so she cheerfully plays to any and all kinds of -isms to get what she wants.
  • Ret-Gone: One of the possible fates for New York if the avatars lose—the Woman in White destroyed Atlantis so completely that it never existed in the first place.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Aislyn finds the Neo-Nazi her father brings home off-putting even before he gets rapey, not because Neo-Nazis are bad, but because he identifies with the Vikings, and her hatred of "invaders" extends to hating the Vikings for invading Ireland centuries ago.
  • Villainous Gentrification: A tool of the Woman in White. Becomes very literal near the climax when a race to Staten Island must go through a gauntlet of Starbucks franchises-turned-Eldritch Abominations.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The Enemy wants to stop cities from becoming alive and destroying multiple inhabited universes each time. If she has to exploit human bigotries and cause much, smaller massacres in the process and cripple humanity's social development, so be it.
  • White Male Lead: Averted with the main cast. In fact being a straight white male is a good sign of being on the side of evil.

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