December 3, 2022

Review: The World We Make

The World We Make The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Great Cities series, which was originally supposed to be a trilogy (as explained in the first book, The City We Became). Unfortunately, life, Trump and the pandemic caught up with the author during the writing of this book, and the series shrunk to a duology. I certainly can't blame the author, and don't mean to condemn her--but her decision does show. This book seems quite compressed, and the seams of what has been excised don't fit together in places.

That's not to say what we get isn't very good. Each character is given one or two chapters for an in-depth exploration, and there is even a chapter from the point of view of the antagonist, the Woman in White, otherwise known as the Lovecraftian city of R'lyeh. We also find out the origins of the multiverse, why it has been rebooted so many times, and why cities coming to life and manifesting avatars constitutes such a threat. This actually casts the series in more of a science-fictional, quantum-physics direction, notwithstanding the characters' proclamations of "city magic."

This book is also more overtly political than the first. Given the times in which it was written and where it is set, I don't know how it could be otherwise. The author calls out the less savory aspects of New York in myriad ways, as this excerpt from the climactic battle shows:

In anticipatory delight, she manifests her own battle configuration. The circular disk of her now spreads out like a Monstera leaf, streets splitting and walls folding back. From the splits emerge extra heads on long, armored necks. Each has its own eyes, mismatched and in clusters, some with slitted pupils and some with horselike bars and a few with wavy cuttlefish eye-smiles. Beyond this, R'lyeh has allowed them limited individuality: one has a chainsaw tongue, another a vacuum nose, while another is covered in mouths all singing an atonal, screeching battle hymn. They are more than they seem, these appendages: not just physical threats, but conceptual weapons. The mouthed head is formed from concentrated Staten Islander hatred of paying city taxes, for example. With it, R'lyeh means to rip out New York's civil service--all the bridge painters and street-sweeper drivers and even the people who work at the DMV, who are as vital to a city's life as any living thing's intestines. The chainsaw tentacle is powered by NIMBYism, meant to chop up chunks of affordable housing and public transportation expansions. And there's more, more, so much more. R'lyeh has spent these past few months learning all her prey's weaknesses, and--with the help of its most reluctant borough--designing a weapon to target each and every one.

This is clearly written by someone who lives in New York, who both loves and hates it, but more importantly knows it, from the inside out. This essence of New York carries through to the somewhat unexpected climax, which involves not a frantic battle but a not-quite-deus ex machina wherein the avatars of New York face down and call out the Ur-gods behind the multiverse, and stop them from killing off universes because of their fear of anything that is different. Which solves the ethical problem from the first book, and also fits in with the series' broader themes of social justice.

I could see the ghost of what would have been the third book in the final chapters and coda, and am a little sad that we won't be getting it. Still, even a rushed and truncated Jemisin novel is better than 90% of anything else out there.

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