“The City Born Great,” by N.K. Jemisin

The City Born Great, by N.K. Jemisin. Art by Richie Pope.

“The City Born Great,” by N.K. Jemisin.
Published in Tor.Com, September 2016.

This one runs the gamut, review-wise. Let’s go from down to up…

Seraph, at Tangent Online, calls it:

A profanity-riddled, drug-induced psychotic episode of a paranoid-schizophrenic young man, with no justification for an abrupt and unconnected ending. That’s really the most positive I can be.

Rocket Stack Rank pegs this “Average,” with pros and cons:

Pro: The narrator really does want to do something creative. He sings, he draws, and he despairs, because he knows he has no future. Paulo saves him, and he brings New York to life and defeats a monster with it.

Con: It’s hard to consistently suspend disbelief for this one. Swinging bridges and neighborhoods into action against a Cthulhu-like creature is hard to credit.

A.C. Wise writes,

“The City Born Great” captures the personality of New York City wonderfully, its rough edges, and its unbreakable spirit. The places we live are imbued with the personality of their citizens, and full of quirks all their own. As someone who lived in Jersey and worked in NYC for several years, I fully admit this story had me wanting to punch the air and yell, “Hell, yeah! No cosmic horror is taking my city down!”


4 thoughts on ““The City Born Great,” by N.K. Jemisin”

  1. This is Proper urban fantasy, by which I mean the early sub-sub-genre of e.g. Wizard of the Pigeons and War for the Oaks, not the later vague marketing category. It puts me more in mind of WotP, with the protagonist who may just be imagining it all and the city as a palpable presence.
    I’m not sure the narration is 100% successful, as the first person is a bit relentless sometimes, but it works brilliantly towards the end:

    “over the barrier and through the grass into fucking hell I go one lane silver car two lanes horns horns horns three lanes SEMI WHAT’S A FUCKING SEMI DOING ON THE FDR IT’S TOO TALL YOU STUPID UPSTATE HICK screaming four lanes GREEN TAXI screaming Smart Car hahaha cute…”

    I just love that passage with the terrified stream of consciousness.

  2. This is fundamentally a “New York City Is Awesome!” story, and I’m very much not a City Person (I am, in fact, a “stupid upstate hick”…). Which means this story starts in a deep hole. It’s not that I automatically hate magical city stories– I like Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift books quite a bit, and the Magicals Anonymous spin-offs only a little less. But the Swift books in particular have a unique voice that really clicks with me, and the Magicals Anonymous books benefit from being spin-offs of a series I had already fully bought into.

    This doesn’t really offer enough that’s new to get past the general eye-rolliness of the whole cities-are-great thing, for me. If anything, the voice is trying a bit too hard to be topical, in a way that pushes me further out of the story. As I seem to say every week, I think some of this might be a format constraint– in order for it to be a short story, the narrative pace needs to be relentless, where at greater length the style could be dialed back a little, and maybe it wouldn’t seem to be trying too hard.

    Mostly, though, it’s aggressively not my thing, so I probably wouldn’t like it at any length.

  3. I really enjoyed the voice for this one — it felt rich and real to me, full of detail and emotion.

    As for the story as a whole, I enjoyed it well enough – it’s energetic and fast-paced, so a good voice makes it stand out. Looking back on it in retrospect, though, I feel like it was… underdeveloped?

    Basically, the mythology doesn’t feel very cohesive to me. The various magical elements we see – painting “breathing holes” to ease the city’s labor; using imagery and emotion from the city as a weapon; the Enemy as a weird creature that just forms and starts attacking the protagonist — each one works on its own, but they don’t seem to really relate to each other in any way. I guess this is kind of a Weird Aesthetic and worldbuilding isn’t the focus here, but this felt kind of like putting in a few random associations, rather than building up a world and a premise that feel real.

    And, really, I think what I’m most disappointed in is that the opposition to the city manifests as yet another urban monster chase. I feel like a city-spirit should be something *different* then regular people, and the things that prey on them should work *differently* than run-of-the-mill monsters. Reducing everything to stark physical threat kind of diminishes the grandeur of the concept.

    (I also think it’s reeeeeeally convenient that New York has waited until now to be born. I don’t care *what* criteria you use, NYC should have qualified forever ago.)

  4. I feel like the concept of a city as a living creature is one that’s been done elsewhere as well. There’s a very popular series of Israeli stories (where *every* city has a city-spirit), that has some interesting comparisons and contrasts with this piece. But are there well-known English pieces that take this theme?

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