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Exclusive 1st Read: 'The City We Became,' By N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin is fresh off of winning three Hugo Awards in a row for her powerful Broken Earth trilogy — set on a world wracked with constant geological upheavals, where only the despised and exploited people known as orogenes can calm the quakes.

Her new book hits a little closer to home — The City We Became is set in New York, but with a twist. This is a world where some cities — the ones where people are constantly coming and going, bringing their oddities and their energies — become so lively that they literally come alive, as human avatars. And those human avatars must battle eldritch horrors from beyond to protect the cities they embody.

We're excited to bring you an exclusive first read of The City We Became. In this scene, São Paulo has come to mentor the newly born New York City, and finds himself confronting an evil intrusion in a Manhattan park.


Something is very wrong at Inwood Hill Park.

It's always difficult for Paulo to tell where he's going in another city. As a child — just himself, a quick and sharp-toothed favela rat, long before he'd become twelve million people — he had an uncanny sense of direction, enabling him to tell which way was east or south just by glancing at the sun. Even in strange places he'd been able to do that, but the ability vanished when he became a city. Now he is São Paulo, and his feet are configured for different streets. His skin craves different breezes, different angles of light. North and south are the same everywhere, of course, but in his land, it should be winter — never cold in São Paulo, but certainly cooler and drier than the muggy, searing summer heat of this ridiculous city. Every day that he spends here, he feels backward, upside down. Home isn't where the heart is; it's wherever the wind feels right.

Ah, he has no time for such maunderings.

The grid pattern of Manhattan and the pleasant Brazilian Portuguese voice of Google Maps both make up for his lost sense of direction, and presently he reaches the place that pings on his senses as intrusion, interference, inimical. Enemy. That sense has grown stronger in the hours since New York's birth, rather than weaker, as it should have — and it is changing, too, in a way he's never before experienced. Rising everywhere, tugging at his awareness like magnetic lines. Developing poles. The one at FDR Drive he expected, given the events that preceded New York's birth, though he means to go and inspect that site next in case it holds more clues. The one in Inwood is new.

He strolls through the park, enjoying the cooler air and fresher scents of greenery, though he remains wary. At first he sees nothing to explain the looming, prickling sense of wrongness that tugs him along, worse on one side of his body than the other as he orients himself. It's a workday and the park is nearly empty. The birds sing beautifully, however foreign their songs sound to his ear. Mosquitoes torment him; he waves at them constantly. That, at least, is no different from home.

Then he wends his way around a particularly thick stand of trees, and stops.

At the foot of the narrow walking path is a clearing, beyond which is a wide grassy meadow that overlooks what his map calls Spuyten Duyvil Creek. At the heart of the clearing is what he expected to see: a simple monument to the site where Europeans bargained to turn a beautiful forested island into a reeking parking lot and glorified shopping mall. (Paulo is aware that this opinion is uncharitable. He is disinclined to correct himself while he is stuck in New York.) It's a rock with a plaque on it. It also, he guesses given the history, represents a place of power for anyone who hears the city's voice.

The first thing he understands is that a battle has taken place here. The scent that tinges the air holds no longer purely green vegetation, but a saltier, briny whiff as well. He knows this scent. There's money all over the ground — and again, understanding something of the nature of Manhattan, Paulo knows at once that someone has used the money as a construct, to more precisely aim the power of the city. Aim at what? The Enemy. He does not know what form the Enemy took, but that's the only possible answer. And whoever fought the Enemy here won, or at least managed to walk away unbloodied.

But — this is the second thing Paulo understands, though it was the first thing he saw — the Enemy has left its mark, too.

The clearing is full of people. At least twenty of them mill about near the monument rock, chattering. He hears some of the chatter when the wind shifts. (" — cannot believe how low the rents are here, so much better than Brooklyn — " " — authentic Dominican food — " " — I just don't understand why they have to play their music so loud!") A couple of the people in the clearing carry food or drink: one woman has an expensive-looking waffle cone topped with at least three scoops; one's got a bottle of Soylent visible in his back pocket; one's actually sipping from a plastic wineglass of rosé. Most of them are white and well dressed, though there's a smattering of browner or grungier people.

None of them are talking to each other, Paulo notes. Instead they simply speak to the air, or into darkened cell phones held up to their mouths in speaker mode — or, in one man's case, to the small dog he carries in one arm, who keeps licking his face and whining and squirming. None of them face each other. The ice cream in the woman's hand has mostly melted, and three colors of dairy goo run down her arm and onto her clothes, apparently unnoticed. Pigeons have begun to gather where the melted ice cream puddles at her feet.

And all of them, Paulo has noticed, noticed first, are wearing white.

This is nothing that Paulo has ever seen before, but he's fairly certain that he has not happened upon a surprise white party in the middle of the park. Frowning, he lifts his cell phone and snaps a photo. It makes a faint shutter-sound because he hasn't bothered to turn off that option in the settings. At the sound, all of the people around the rock fall silent, and turn to look at him.

Paulo tenses. As casually as he can, however, he puts the phone in his pants pocket, and pulls a cigarette from his jacket pocket. He taps it twice before putting it between his lips. Old habit. Then, as twenty sets of eyes stare unblinking at him, Paulo pulls out his lighter and takes a good, deep drag. Folds his arms casually, the cigarette held between two fingers. Lets the smoke trickle from his nostrils slowly. It drifts up in clouds in front of his face.

Their eyes unfocus. Some of them frown and dart glances around, as if they've lost something and can't remember what. When Paulo backs away, around the trail-bend and out of their sight, they do not follow. After a moment, he hears their automatic, directionless chatter resume.

Paulo leaves quickly. The park is big and the walk is long, but Paulo does not slow his pace until he's at least a block outside of Inwood Hill's boundaries. Then, and only then, does he check the photo that he just took.

It's the scene he saw, eerie enough on its own — but every person's face is distorted as if the digital photo is an old Polaroid that's been heat-warped here and there. And although it's not clear in some cases, Paulo notes an additional distortion just behind each person's head, or near their shoulders. Indistinct, just a warping of the air, but consistent; he can see it on most of them. Something is there that he cannot see. Yet.

He goes into a tiny, poorly lit ancient restaurant whose staff are clearly all related. There he sits down and orders something at random. He's not hungry, but there is power in what he's doing, and he feels the need to bolster his defenses. This is not his city. He is more vulnerable here than he's used to.

Then, while he nibbles on some of the best pernil he's ever had, he texts the distorted photo to the international number. He adds, It's boroughs. There will be five of them. And I'm going to need your help.

From The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin. Copyright 2020 by N.K. Jemisin. Published by Orbit, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Petra Mayer (she/her) is an editor (and the resident nerd) at NPR Books, focusing on fiction, and particularly genre fiction. She brings to the job passion, speed-reading skills, and a truly impressive collection of Doctor Who doodads. You can also hear her on the air and on the occasional episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour.