Review of The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin
The World We Make
by N.K. Jemisin
It isn’t often that I read books in a series consecutively. However, I was able to borrow The World We Make and the first book, The City We Became, at the same time from my library. After I finished the first book, I decided that it made sense for me to dive into its sequel right away, before I forget anything about the series. I’m not mad about that decision!
Spoilers for the first book in the series but not for what happens in this one!
N.K. Jemisin picks up three months after the end of the first book. The five avatars of New York, along with the primary, who has taken the name Neek, are settling into their roles as embodiments of a living city. They are still missing among their number Aislyn/Staten Island, who has holed up in her borough and invited the Enemy—now known as R’lyeh—to establish a foothold in this reality. But the attacks on New York City are less extradimensional, more mundane—like a xenophobic senator running for mayor. Meanwhile, Manny tries to convince the other cities to convene a meeting. He’s convinced that they need to work together to defeat the Enemy, but very few of the elder cities are interested in listening to an upstart like New York.
In many ways this book is more explicitly political than the first book (which predated the pandemic). The City We Became is socially aware and pushes back against set-pieces of injustice in our society, like white supremacy. However, The World We Make takes that much further. In particular, Brooklyn’s decision to oppose Senator Panfilo’s run for mayor allows Jemisin to examine the tensions present in any battle for systemic change. Once again I find myself admiring how she allows the avatars to be so different. Bronca and Brooklyn both very much want the same thing, but their differences in age, sexuality, etc., mean that they don’t always agree (or even get along). Veneza is far more open to reconciling with Aislyn than the others (perhaps because, as Jersey City, she knows what it is like to be of New York but an outsider to New York at the same time).
Indeed, as I explored in my review of Sea of Tranquility recently, science fiction often does its best work in liminal spaces. This book is yet another great example. Jemisin’s palette is at once explosively colourful, expressive, celebratory of diversity of personhood and thought and at the same time easily described as shades of grey—that is, very little about what happens in this book is black-and-white. The ambiguous character of R’lyeh probably demonstrates that best, though I won’t go into more specifics!
The World We Make also delves more into the metaphysical aspects of the multiverse. This is my sweet spot (as I noted in my review of the first book, I have a particular affinity for Padmini), but other readers might find it less entertaining. I love the discussion of kugelblitzes and Schrödinger equations and observational collapse. Jemisin manages to strike a balance, in my opinion, between trying to make it sound too sensible versus turning it into so much quantum babble. The concept of cities as they relate to the multiverse, Rl’yeh’s role, the mysterious Ur, etc., is pretty cool, and it is one of the two elements of the story I’d love to have seen explored further.
(Also, while we’re shouting out my affinity for Padmini: I squeed when Jemisin reveals that Padmini is, it seems, asexual or at least ace-spec—the specific label isn’t used on page, but she says she isn’t attracted to men or women. Any time I run across a casually ace character in my fiction, I am excite!)
The other element is what’s up with Manny, his family, and what he apparently already knew before he came to New York City. There is so much more that Jemisin could do with this series. Alas, as she writes in the acknowledgements, her plan for this to be a trilogy was curtailed because of the pandemic’s effect on how she views the series—and I can’t blame her for that. I appreciate we got at least this much to close out this particular story, even if she has no plans for more at this point.
I liked this book both more and less than the first book. More because it’s more multiversal, as I just discussed. More because the plot gives us more time to breathe and enjoy each of these intensely different, nuanced characters. Less because the wrap-up is a bit rushed. Less because, in some ways, parts of the storytelling feel less nuanced or more obvious than they did in the first book. I don’t know—I’m going to give it four stars to tie it with The City We Became because it is very good, and I do think that if you like the first book, you should close out the duology. Plus, I think this is consistent with my personal experience of reading Jemisin to this point: fantastic writer and storyteller whose style kind of works for me but also kind of doesn’t, which is totally fine. I’m just glad she keeps bringing this level of creativity to the fields of fantasy and science fiction.