City on Fire

The World We Make BY N. K. JEMISIN. NEW YORK: ORBIT. 368 PAGES. $30.

The cover of The World We Make

HOW SPECIAL is New York City? Is it the greatest, most exciting, most alive-seeming city on the North American continent? If you think so, would you say as much to people who live in Los Angeles, or Montreal? Would you build a large-scale, world-shaping fantasy series around the idea? 

N. K. Jemisin did. Her ambitious, historically conscious, almost perfectly executed Broken Earth trilogy (2015–17) won a stack of awards, including three fan-voted Hugos in a row (the first author to accomplish that hat trick). Its thousand-plus pages incorporated mutant superpowers, geological upheavals, devices from nineteenth-century slave narratives, and multigenerational trauma. No author could follow up something so ambitious with something else just as ambitious, and Jemisin did not try. Instead, she completed a video-game tie-in novel, a successful Green Lantern comic book series, a fine and varied collection of short stories, and then The City We Became (2020), whose five, then six, then seven major characters come together to recognize that they are the mystical incarnations for each of the five boroughs, plus one extra for the honorary borough of Jersey City and one for the city as a whole. Together they are—as Jemisin explains early in the new sequel—“amalgamated gods sprung whole from the fusion of belief with reality”: the essence of New York City come to life. 

If you’re expecting that each of these characters embody famous aspects of their regions, you made the right call (and you may be familiar with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or Neverwhere). Brooklyn Thomason is a confident, well-to-do Black woman who cares for her dad and her daughter while holding a seat on the city council. Bronca Siwanoy is a senior citizen, an Indigenous lesbian, a fire-spitter in steel-toed boots who runs a neighborhood art center in Hunts Point that doubles as a long-term shelter. Manny, who’s good with money, must have come to the city to escape his past, which he can’t remember now that he’s the incarnation of the richest borough, the one where people move to remake themselves. As for New York as a whole, he’s a homeless graffiti artist asleep in a disused subway tunnel, like the Fisher King of the Grail myth: he has to be found, and rescued, and brought back to health. (When he wakes up, he goes by NYC, pronounced “Neek.”)

Nor is the magic confined to just one city. Our heroes turn out to belong to a magical process as old as civilization. New York City, you see, is just now becoming conscious, its own self-directed entity, one of the world’s great conscious cities, like Paris, Hong Kong, ancient El Faiyûm, and upstart São Paulo. These cities have a common enemy: an interdimensional baddie who shows up in our world as a white-blonde white lady, a vague magical threat, and an infectious fungus capable of mind control. As “the ultimate form of human collective creation,” great cities threaten this other, all-white dimension’s living realms of stasis and of sameness. Each new city’s champions come into being to defend their new turf from this literal whiteness. 

Sometimes they lose. The white fungus, with its possessive “colonial hive mind,” won North America’s last two magical battles, imposing enough disasters on Port-au-Prince and on New Orleans to stop them from becoming conscious and great. But those cities did not have such diverse people and purposes as New York, whose boroughs stand a chance—or they would if Aislyn (pronounced “island,” as in Staten), the only white incarnation of a borough, had not betrayed the rest of the city, choosing isolation and familiarity and siding with the white lady.

That’s where things stand as The World We Make begins, with a literal cloud of toxic demonic whiteness hovering over Staten Island as the rest of our borough-heroes decide what to do. With its tight allegory, its good and evil, its visual figures for everything, Jemisin’s plot could have made a wonderful comic book series. As a novel, The City We Became itself became more than a bit stagy, obvious, even touristy, despite Jemisin’s track record of complex world-building and her New York bona fides (she visited frequently as a child, and lives there now). There’s no clear line between a representative for each borough, on the one hand, and a cliché about it on the other: Queens really is full of immigrant families, for example, so of course a quantitatively gifted child of South Asian immigrants represents it. “New York takes anyone who wants in.” (At least it should. We hope so. If they can afford it.)

Doug Argue, New York City, 2019, oil on canvas, 78 × 54". Courtesy Waterhouse & Dodd Gallery.
Doug Argue, New York City, 2019, oil on canvas, 78 × 54". Courtesy Waterhouse & Dodd Gallery.

All these celebrations of a mostly Black and brown, dynamic city, inspiring but predictable in themselves, look better set against the history of fantasy and science fiction, since they reverse H. P. Lovecraft’s trope of a white America threatened by overseas (as well as by undersea) demons. The white dimension is also the dead white ocean-floor city that Lovecraft named R’lyeh, rising to overtake the world of the living, which (in Jemisin’s cosmology) is a Black and brown world of immigration, “new ways of doing things,” “creativity and social living.”

That world—not just its New York City component—emerges in The World We Make, a better, less predictable novel than The City. Each incarnation of each borough now has its own subplots and challenges. Padmini of Queens, a math genius, has to find a new job to avoid deportation. A cartoonishly Trumpy US senator, Ruben Panfilo, has decided to run for mayor: “We’re gonna Make New York Great Again!” In order to defeat him and his thugs, Brooklyn must stop denying, and start to wield, her past as a 1980s rapper, MC Free. Manny visits other cities’ incarnations—a skeptical Hong Kong, a feline-friendly Istanbul—in order to get them to call a grand council, so that they might unite their powers and beat back R’lyeh. 

That interdimensional incarnation of sameness and predictability, the white lady and her body-snatching fungus, finds allies in all the corporate powers that want to make New York—including Staten Island—just like everywhere else. Aislyn realizes that she might have picked the wrong side when R’lyeh ruins her favorite pizza dough. Jemisin’s plot enfolds many delights, but few surprises: Senator Panfilo gets sub-rosa help from the Proud Men, led by Conall McGuiness (compare Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes). When he shows up the novel is not even allegory: it’s a Captain America punches Hitler scene, “a nice proper mano-a-mano, good-versus-evil moment,” as the evil white lady explains. Jemisin asks us to personalize the villains and then to imagine their defeat. Real-life battles against en-trenched authority are, as the Broken Earth trilogy recognized, more complex and harder to pursue, though at our scary, depressing American moment, popular novels about victories can help. 

To find those victories, our incarnations must bring all the merely human New Yorkers into better alignment with their diverse, vibrant, unjust, needy, gaudy home. Thus we find Neek “gently influencing some of the younger newcomers to the city . . . to go volunteer with the Mermaid Parade or J’Ouvert or their local block association,” and keeping “helados carts and churro ladies” away from police harassment. Random New Yorkers powered by Manny’s energy invite a supporting character to “a fringe-festival standup show” and “a private gym for gender-nonconforming people” (I’d go). Oysters, reintroduced to New York Harbor, become a weapon for the good guys. All this local color feeds into a denouement that also involves Atlantis, and multiversal quantum theory, and an interdimensional attempt at a peace deal: Will the city survive? Read the book to find out (though, given the tone, you probably know).

Jemisin’s acknowledgments explains that she planned a trilogy, but the labor of writing about a real modern-day place, and the stress of reacting to Trump and Trumpism, led her to wrap this series up early: “My creative energy was fading under the onslaught of reality.” After covid, and Trumpism, and perhaps Eric Adams, “the New York I wrote about in the first book of this series no longer exists.” Is New York City, for Jemisin, still special? Of course it is, but The World tones down the exceptionalism: “At least half a dozen cities in this hemisphere are poised to make the change soon”—that is, to become conscious, just like New York. Meanwhile, New York holds center stage. “The Big Apple dreams big, flexes big and needs big allies, especially if it’s going to fight another whole-ass universe.”

So what saves The World We Make from feeling like a product of the tourist board? For one thing, it’s so much fun: the plot moves fast. For another, it’s 2022: everything the city means for Jemisin—immigration, Blackness, brownness, novelty, mutual aid, chosen family, and queerness—really does need clear defense. Jemisin even has kind words for Ed Koch, who “weaponized the city’s culture” and “made himself an icon of New York,” whatever else he failed to do. And though Jemisin loves the city, only some of her heroes do: Padmini’s family just happened to land here, and Manny, though he loves (and lusts after) Neek, has one foot out the door. As for Bronca and Brooklyn, who clash often, they share an exasperated optimism that ends up being the best note in the whole novel: they are the Black and brown women whose votes and voices and organizations and underpaid or unrecognized labor have prevented America (so far) from sinking under the weight of its own privilege. 

No wonder Bronca is (as Jemisin writes) “tired of having to spend so much time stopping stupid, selfish people from destroying themselves and everything around them.” No wonder Brooklyn feels that she, like “any Black woman must both be hypercompetent and keep it real.” New York stories are, as this one is, about design and engineering, queerness and money, immigration and America’s internal migration. But they are also, when they are accurate, about racial privilege and race. As I write, an election is three weeks away: the very idea of America, home for huddled masses yearning to breathe free, seems under threat again from a real-life R’lyeh. If it stays upright we will have places like New York, and people like Bronca, to thank. 

Stephanie Burt’s most recent book is the poetry collection We Are Mermaids (Graywolf, 2022). Her podcast is Team-Up Moves