This fantasy/science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Nebula Award. It was published by Orbit on March 24, 2020, and runs 449 pages. This release is listed as #1 in the Great Cities Trilogy, which I gather means Jemisin means to keep writing on the story. For anyone who’s been living under a rock and doesn’t know, Jemisin is well-established as a writer and is a former Nebula winner and a four-time Hugo winner. This review contains spoilers.

New York is about to be born as a living city, and it has chosen a homeless street waif to be its avatar. São Paulo, as the youngest living city, sends its avatar to make sure everything goes well. Things seem to be going just fine with the birth, but then at the last moment there’s a hitch of some kind that São Paulo can’t deal with. NYC’s avatar ends up first unconscious, and then missing. Meanwhile, a kid who’s come to NYC to attend school gets off the train at Penn station, and suddenly can’t remember his name. He meets a girl with a taxi and fights off some kind of weird white monster, and then realizes he is Manny, the multiracial avatar for Manhattan. He meets up with Brooklyn, a black city council member; Queens, an Asian immigrant on an HB-1 visa, and the Bronx, a Native American art gallery director, and they all find they’ve come together because the city is in peril from an extra-dimensional threat. They need to connect with NYC’s other borough, Staten Island, and then find and wake the primary avatar before it’s too late. As they search for the two missing parts of their whole, the terrifying Woman in White dogs their heels, tearing open holes in the city for her reality to flow into. Can they pull their city together in time to defeat the threat?

This novel is an expansion of the short story “The City Born Great” which was nominated for a Hugo in 2017. (See my review here.) The short story seemed to cast police as the monster that needed to be defeated, but most of that element has been removed for this novel, and the Woman in White is substituted as the avatar of the threat. This has a slight flavor of horror, and the author namechecks Lovecraft. Jemisin lives in NYC, so there are plenty of great details about the city and the flavor of its different boroughs. The characters are memorable, and Jemisin has provided a background for everyone except Manny, with his mysterious case of amnesia. As usual, the author has created a resonant theme, which seems to be that we’re all stronger together. Also on the positive side, the loving presentation of NYC will attract people who love it.

On the less positive side, it took me a while to identify the theme with any certainty, as the events go off in all directions and it feels like Jemisin was unsure of what she wanted to say in the book. Everyone is coming together except white people, and the Woman in White with her other dimension and lowlife white minions looks suspiciously like white culture. Staten Island, described as mostly a white enclave, also eventually rejects the city’s avatars and embraces the threat. Maybe this is an accurate description of NYC and its boroughs, but it seems a little separatist to me. Although the characters have backstories and there were some glimmers of interest, none of it pans out with real human drama, leaving them just stereotypes. I was left with the feeling the author should have given us the characters’ innermost feelings instead of the scattered, heavily padded inner dialog that we get. The evil threat mutates randomly. Several events appear designed to point out predatory business practices carried out by whites, Karens in the park, how gentrification destroys neighborhoods, how white-laced chain stores are evil, and similar elements of a subtheme that feels at cross-purposes to the main theme of unity. Also, as a projection, this has missed the current narrative, which seems to be that not just whites, but also Jews and Asians, are the “ownership class” that needs to be removed in order for minority culture to flourish in cities like New York.

Three stars.