N. K. Jemisin's The World We Make is set in New York City, where avatars represent the boroughs, from the Bronx to Manhattan. Even Staten Island has an avatar, although her relationship with the rest of New York is problematic. Avatars have managed to fend off the ongoing efforts of an evil entity called the Woman in White (no relation to Wilkie Collins) but new dangers constantly emerge.
The award-winning writer manages to blend horror and even elements of science fiction into this engaging urban fantasy. One of the joys of the book is how she recycles just what she wants from Lovecraft. The centre of evil is known as R'lyeh, and those under its control exhibit small frond-like growths ("guidelines") that may be tiny reminders of Cthulhu. There is also a giant tentacled creature attacking a ferry in a particularly enjoyable section.
The book moves at a fast pace, and the dialogue is believable. The author manages to avoid chunks of backstory being communicated in unnecessary speeches between characters. I was well into the novel before I read that it was the second in a two-book series (the first is called The City We Became). The World We Make certainly stands up as a single read.
One of the strengths of a successful speculative novel is that it makes the otherness believable by grounding it in real-world details, and Jemisin certainly achieves this. Racism present in the workplace, the dubious relationship of the police and some of the citizenship, and the way gentrification acts against the interests of the urban poor are elements here. A mayoral candidate mouthing platitudes about making New York great again feels eerily familiar. His rank populism is pushed by the presence of R'lyeh, hovering over NYC.
There is also a wicked humour in these pages. You have to be pretty daring to call a chapter "The Pizza of Existential Despair", for example. There are meetings between avatars of New York and those of other cities. Some of these older cities have only one avatar, and Tokyo, for example, sticks to English for that meeting, despite Manhattan's fluency in Japanese, as it's "(e)asier to be rude in ways that English-speakers will understand". The meeting with Istanbul is surprisingly moving; Jemisin continually surprises the reader by shifting tone and viewpoint.
A sign of the strength of a novel is how much it stays with you after finishing it. I have been staring at people wondering what Canberra's avatar would look like. Would there be one for the northside (ANU student?) and one for the south (heritage-obsessed Griffith resident?) Jemisin has created an enjoyable and memorable fantasy in The World We Make.
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