With The World We Make, we get to see a master storyteller flex her muscles as she draws us back into the world of personified cities and magic avatars. Even with all its faults, this book is a much better, more nuanced New York City book than many others. There’s everything you need in an urban fantasy series: the sense of adventure, the tragic odds, the unique cast and their sometimes-fraught relationships; even a will-they-won't-they arc!
The World We Make picks up three months after the events of the last book, The City We Became, where New York City's “birth” went wrong. Instead of a single person who could represent its unique character, the city chose multiple people as avatars to embody and protect it—one for each of its boroughs. It has been three months since the team was assembled, and three months since they won a minor victory against the city-devouring Enemy, also known as R’lyeh, and lost Staten Island in the process.
After the urgent and high-octane events that brought them together take a bit of a backseat, our protagonists get some time to collect themselves and grow into the awesome powers that the city has granted them. For most of the book R’lyeh, aka the Woman in White, is still a threat, but she is a spectre in the distance, ominously spreading tentacles over Staten Island to reinforce her foothold. The more immediate threat comes from a a politician who targets New York for being the melting pot that it is, and who’s against everything that the city stands for. And because the metaphysical is real in Jemisin’s world, and imagined ideas about cities shape their real-life existence, the mayoral race becomes more than just another election; it becomes an existential fight for the soul of the city.
Brooklyn says as much after a nefarious demonstration reminiscent of the caravans that came to New York City in response to the Black Lives Matter protests and the presidential election of 2020.
“These people,” Brooklyn concludes, “they come here for a weekend maybe. Usually never leave Midtown, watch movies about us made in LA by producers who grew up in Kansas. They think they know us. They tell each other that New York is the boogeyman of cities, full of scary—” She catches herself, takes a deep breath. Puts on a yeah-I-almost-slipped smile, which makes Mariam chuckle. “Scary Black people and eeee-legal criminals and trans women who'll beat them up in a bathroom. And then they have the nerve to come here waving banners that say Our city not yours. People like this only want to use New York. They steal our tragedies to hype themselves up. They claim ownership of a New York that never existed outside their imaginations. And they actually think they can tell us who we are!”
“We are New York [....]. And we are the ones who get to decide what that means. You don't get to step on New Yorkers on your way to greater power, Senator Friendly.”
(truly on the nose with those antagonist names btw)
Turning the political race into a direct fight with the Enemy allows the cast to shine in their non-avatar roles as well. Those were my favourite parts of the book: getting to know each of these characters in their element without the threat of their world shattering at any moment (well, not more than usual, anyway). There’s a delightful scene near the beginning with Padmini, the avatar for the borough Queens, enjoying a quiet morning with breakfast and laughter with her aunt and uncle after some earth-shattering revelations. It is representative of the way Jemisin holds her multicultural cast throughout the two books, with care and empathy, never poking fun at them in an effort to be funny.
I’ve previously written about how surprised I was not only at Padmini’s existence in Jemisin’s story, but also at her nuanced characterization in the first book. There’s a particular experience of reading fiction that includes an Indian character written by a Global North author where, as an Indian reader, I’m constantly bracing for a joke that inevitably arrives in one of a few known varieties: the cringy Apu from the Simpsons or the joke about irrationally high parental expectations. When neither of those came for Padmini in the last book, I was impressed.
This book, particularly in its depiction of Padmini’s arc, reinforced to me that Jemisin has indeed worked to know the world she’s drawing from. Instead of using people as diversity window dressing, she has chosen to dive into the entrenched hierarchies that exist within these communities (for example, expressing an understanding of caste politics in the Indian diaspora that even mainstream political commentators lack). By going beyond the stereotypes and bare minimums, Jemisin shows both readers and writers the way to a better book.
Another memorable scene involves Bel (Manny’s Columbia University roommate) finding himself in a bit of a pickle in Lower Manhattan and having to escape Enemy goons. I'm not including many details here because it is such a delight to read, but that chapter, too, provided a place for the readers to revel in the spirit of the city and in the author’s careful handling of her characters.
This book opens up the world further as well: we see a lot more of Neek, New York’s original avatar, and learn about Manny’s mysterious past. We get a glimpse of the multiverse and meet some of the other Great Cities that were only teased in the last book. This book is ambitious in scope, and for the most part, it delivers.
The book’s premise is a bit of a mixed bag, however. Each character is nuanced and complicated, right up until the point when the plot needs to kick in to get things moving again. The strength of the last book was in how Jemisin connects the real-world horrors with their speculative counterparts, and then fights them with custom-made constructs. But to get there, the characters often have to take an anime power-up route, going through ideas and emotions that make their borough unique to conjure up their construct. In a life-and-death situation, the power-ups and the payoffs feel earned. Less so when the threat is not as existential.
For example, this section with Bronca fighting R’lyeh with Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry is inarguably very cool and also very funny:
“While I pondered week and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore...” She’s definitely weak and weary, and if she fucks this up she's going to die because she's forgotten more of Edgar Allan Poe than she can remember.
Yet she is relieved to feel a tingle in her skin and a stir along her spine, as the city begins to respond to her desperate call. Energy gathers, raw and hot, and with it comes a blunt, immense sort of nudge. The Bronx is always weary. Fine, fine, she imagines her borough saying, with a kind of disgruntled sigh. Where d'ya want it, where d'ya want it, come on, getting paid by the hour here. Yeah, there's her asshole of a borough. She's missed it.
Bronca then goes on to kick out the Woman in White, delaying her for the time being. While it was fun to read, I was less convinced by the amount of difficulty the characters were having with their constructs, given that these people have now had at least three months to get used to their powers and learn at least the basics of their work.
This problem gets more pronounced when it comes to the cities we meet for the first time in this book. Tokyo, Paris, Istanbul, and London are distinct people, oozing atmosphere and charm on their own terms when we meet them, but their larger motivations for helping our new city or leaving it to fumble are vague and unconvincing. The only exception to this is São Paolo, and I think that's because we've had some basic characterization of him in the previous book. Every other city we meet is either an unknowable enigma or a compressed essence, even when we’re seeing the world from their point of view.
One of the biggest weaknesses, however, was the lack of consequences for any of the decisions that make up the narrative. Manny’s backstory is as interesting as promised, sets up the stakes that drive tension for a major part of the book, and then gets resolved so quickly that it feels like a balloon bursting with no sound. I was bracing for impact through so much of the book that to find nothing there at the end in terms of consequences was disappointing. This was also true for the main climax. I enjoyed the extended battle with the Great Cities and then with New York, but the answer to a giant metaphysical issue ended up being a rather unsatisfactory conversation.
The afterword of the book describes how the Great Cities trilogy turned into a duology, and how the pandemic and the rise in American fascism shaped the book into its current form. But I can’t help but feel that there’s a lot more to be said and many loose ends that still need to be tied up. Though unlikely, I do hope we get to come back to the Great Cities world in the future; the ending so far seems more like a pause in the narrative, a place to rest and recuperate, than the conclusion to a final battle.