Book reviews / Fantasy

Book review: The City We Became

Not gonna lie, I was a bit disappointed in this novel. It seemed like it was right up my alley as I love the concept of cities being bigger than the sum of their parts (see Neverwhere). It feels like it prioritised politics over plot and structure, which is fine if that’s your goal, but as someone who loves plot and world building, it was a bit thin on both.

The plot is basically cities are ‘born’, in that the accrue enough history, myths and legends that they pierce through different realities to become a living breathing thing, with a human avatar that becomes its champion. However, through doing this, it kills other realities and universes, and one of them pushes back. This time New York is being born but something goes wrong and instead of the one avatar, there are five more each representing a different Borough of New York.

The politics manifest through the different characters, lots of diversity which is stressed as part of their history and identity as we meet each one. They are all really lovely, that isn’t the problem, the characters are probably the strength of the book – they are well written and individual. I really liked most of the characters, especially Bronca (the Bronx) and Brooklyn.

It is hilarious that the only white character is Staten Island, who is the difficult one. Though I’m not sure exactly what we’re supposed to think of her, given her background. Is she trapped by her upbringing or not fighting against injustice because she can’t overcome her racism? We don’t even have to think this thought ourselves as she has an internal monologue with herself where she just talks about why she feels comfortable with the Woman in White (racism). It’s just a bit too-nail-on-the-head. We don’t have to think for ourselves, there is no reading between the lines with any of the characters, it’s all spelled out very clearly.

Then when most of the gang is together, there just seems to be some endless talking about everything we already know. But with lots of hurt feelings and aggravation. Then in a massive rush at the end, all the plot happens. They try to recruit Staten Island, they go try and find the primary avatar of the city, then it ends, in really a chapter or two. It was just sloooowwww, then THE END.

But the problem is that essentially all these five characters have to have the same epiphany that they have become the borough they inhabit. And while the methods vary slightly, there’s basically a confrontation with the Woman in White (the other universe/reality fighting back) who just…tells…them what’s going on. This doesn’t happen exactly the same every time, but it is very repetitive. The Woman in White in some ways was the most interesting character (even though there’s something else going on with her that we get glimpses of but not the whole story) as she has all these Lovecraftian characteristics, which given his history, was more complex than some of the other parts of the book. As well using the kind of faceless corporations of equity companies and the like to strip New York of its individual characteristics. But this could have been used more effectively (or been a bit more of a mystery) but instead it the effects were pretty obvious after the first reveal of it.

I think there’s also an inconsistency in how each borough manifests it’s city-self and is able to fight the Woman in White. This doesn’t bother me, but the fights themselves and how the invasion of the Woman in White is described. Sometimes it just felt too nonsensical, and I didn’t get a real sense of what was actually happening. More impressionistic than description. But occasionally it was very clear, which made it a bit annoying when it wasn’t.

But there were elements of the world building that I really liked, but they were just too few and far between. The best one is that the city wants them to succeed, so the different avatars get lucky or get protected by the city in different ways (by people and things), which I really liked. I wish there was more of that, instead of just when they had to go one place to another. There wasn’t enough of the city, which is a bit ironic.

Anyway, it was okay. But just that. I think if you want a novel with lots of diverse characters but don’t particularly care about plot and pacing you’ll be fine. But otherwise, you might be a bit meh about it.

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