(2020) N. K. Jemisin, Orbit, £16.99, hrdbk, 439pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51266-2
I have never been to New York, but reading this book I felt it was such a love affair with a city, that I could almost use it to navigate its streets. This novel shows a view of the city through a lens of science fiction, but one that feels gritty and real, loved, but also flawed.
I picked up this book, to just read a few pages before bed... You would think I had learned by now, needless to say I did not sleep much that night. Jemisin has won multiple awards for her writing including three Hugos (2016, 2017 and 2018), so if you have not read any of her work you really should. This is an excellent standalone novel if you did not want to take on a whole series of books or preferred a real world based setting. This novel, unlike her 'Broken Earth' trilogy, is in the Urban Fantasy genre. It is loosely set in the real world, in contemporary time.
It is clear from the writing, also confirmed by the notes at the end of the novel, how much research went into this work and the respect that is shown for other people’s culture and beliefs. The novel has a diverse cast, but that does not feel forced, but more a reflection of the reality of New York. If you want diverse writing then this is an excellent example, but not just because of the author's identity, but because of the ethos that pervades their writing.
The novel is based on the premise that a city can become alive and manifest as or in a person. But this manifestation is not without objection and not everyone wants the city to come to life in this way.
Themes in this book include identity and community. How the identity of individuals and the choices they make reflect upon place in which they live. This is seen in larger things like art and community projects, but also in smaller ways; individual interactions, offering and accepting food. Through this narrative Jemsin challenges the reader to look at their own lives. How do the choices we make reflect on the wider community and place in which we live?
By bringing in the cities of other countries; São Paulo, Hong Kong, to support the developing city we, the reader, understand that these lessons are not just meant to relate to New York. The failure in London used as a warning for all those who might follow. As a UK national I might think it a little harsh that London is portrayed in such a negative, albeit nebulous, way, but I can see why that city was chosen.
The tentacled creatures from another reality are an interesting device. A not-so-subtle Lovecraftian reference, while espousing values of inclusiveness and diversity which Lovecraft himself would have wholly rejected. Jemisin makes clear, should any clarity be needed, her views on the legacy of such men.
An excellent, fast-paced read, that should not be missed.
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