First things first: The World We Make is a sequel to The City We Became. Highly, highly recommend you go read that if you haven’t yet. In both books, Jemisin tackles the very real and present issues of gentrification, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, etc., but with a sci-fi/fantasy twist. I’ll give a brief review of The City We Became, which I read a few years ago when it came out. Then I’ll jump into The World We Make.
Mini-Review: The City We Became
Jemisin is the kind of author who will throw you right into the deep end. You may spend time flailing to get to the surface, but once you learn to swim, you never want to get out of the water. In this book, we learn that cities become living things, represented by human avatars. New York City is undergoing this process, but something’s different this time. Each of the boroughs must come together to protect the city. A different person represents each borough and each has a connection to their part of the city.
As a result, the chapters jump between the various characters’ perspectives. Manny, Manhattan’s avatar, who has lost most of his memories. Brooklyn, who fittingly represents Brooklyn. She’s a former rapper and now a councilwoman, fighting to save her family’s brownstone. Bronca, an artist, represents the Bronx. Pamini, a mathematician on a student visa, embodies Queens. And from Staten Island, Aislyn. Aside from Aislyn, all the avatars are people of color, and many are queer. In addition to the avatars of the boroughs, there’s a primary avatar, who is missing.
Then there is the Enemy, a force committed to city infanticide. The avatars are the only ones who can see this Enemy, but civilians are unknowingly impacted by its actions. Despite being strangers to one another, the avatars must find each other and beat back the enemy.
Jemisin does a great job using Manny’s amnesia to stand in for our complete loss as to what’s going on without being heavy handed about it. Each character has such a different personality and background, yet they all feel like complete people right off the bat. Jemisin is a master at writing stories from different perspectives. Each time I start with one character, I don’t want their chapter to end, but by the time I start the next one’s, I’m now committed to them. It takes a lot of skill to pull that off and Jemisin makes it look easy.
I’ve only been to NYC once, and it was a brief trip. I only visited Manhattan and Brooklyn, but I would love to go back for a more in-depth visit someday. Jemisin write a fantastic love letter to the city and its people. She doesn’t hide from the city’s struggle, but she dwells in the glory of all of its people, all their diversity, their myriad backgrounds, and their overarching identity as New Yorkers.
Ok, now on to The World We Make.
There’s a lot I want to talk about, but I’m not sure what would count as a spoiler. So I’m creating a World We Make spoilers page and I’ll go into some of the things there. If you want to go into the book mostly blind, then just stay here. But if you’ve read it or don’t mind learning more details ahead of time, check it out!
While it should probably go without saying, from here on out, there will be spoilers for The City We Became, so if you haven’t read that one yet, beware!
The book picks up pretty much right where we left everyone after The City We Became. The borough avatars (minus traitor Staten Island, but picking up sixth borough Jersey City) along with the primary New York City avatar (going by the name Nyc, pronounced Neek) are adjusting to life as the living embodiments of a city. While they have unique powers, they also still live their regular life. And over all that looms the Enemy’s stronghold, hovering over Staten Island. The Woman in White might not be able to directly enter the NYC, but the avatars (and the city) are not safe by any means.
There are personal challenges – Brooklyn needs to save her family’s brownstone home from a tricky gentrification grab. Manny is slowly figuring out his past, as well as struggling to figure out whether he can make a future with Nyc. Pamini has work and visa issues, and so on and so forth. But the bigger existential crisis is the Woman in White and the rest of the world’s avatars seeming unwillingness to address the problem.
In this book, we branch out a bit and meet some other cities, including Tokyo and Istanbul. We see a dead and lifeless city, a victim of the Enemy. And we spend some more time with Aislyn and see how her deal with the devil is working.
Current events drive the narrative of this book. (Though it should be noted that reality stole from Jemisin, as she was writing this first.) A new mayoral candidate has appeared, claiming he will make New York great again and bring it back to “real” New Yorkers. But of course, the so-called “real New York” he claims to represent is simply a figment of a hateful imagination. It would be comforting to think this is simply the Woman in White’s doing but, as we know all too well, this kind of hate can thrive on its own without outside assistance.
Overall, I thought this was very well done and I really enjoyed jumping back into this world. I appreciated the insight into why the Enemy did what it did and where it came from. I also thought Jemisin did a great job of giving us an understanding of Aislyn without excusing or condoning her.
Unfortunately, I felt like some of the characters got short shrift in this one. We almost never heard from Bronca, for instance. Overall, I felt like there was more emphasis on events rather than characters this time around, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, just different. I missed feeling as connected with everyone this time around though. I also felt the conclusion was a bit rushed, but as I’ll discuss in the spoiler section, additional knowledge clarified why.
All that said, this was a powerful follow-up to a fantastic concept started in the first book. And now that both are out, you can enjoy reading them back-to-back. And if you haven’t read any of N.K. Jemisin’s other books, I strongly recommend them all.