Book Review: ‘The World We Make’ by N.K. Jemisin

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Quick physics review: energy equals matter and matter equals energy. The most well-known equation in the world, E=MC², tells us exactly that. We all parrot this but for the most part, we never think about what it actually means. Or what could be possible because of this fundamental principle of the universe?

After all, thoughts are also energy. Our bodies make electricity and those electrical impulses in our brains create our thoughts. So could our thoughts become real? What if enough people have the same thoughts? Could that much energy become an actual thing? N.K. Jemisin takes that premise and goes further. Could enough thoughts and feelings about a city bring it to life? Can a city have a soul? Find out in The World We Make.

[Note: While I am reviewing this novel independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by Orbit for the purpose of this review. Warning: My review of The World We Make contains some spoilers!]

N.K. Jemisin presents a fascinating idea

So, in The World We Make exactly what we just talked about happens. When a city becomes so well defined and has special enough characteristics, has a personality if you will, it comes to life. Now, this doesn’t mean that the light poles start dancing and the sidewalk starts shifting around. In The World We Make it means that a human (or more than one, depending on the city) becomes an avatar for the city.

The avatar truly embodies the essence of the city and what makes it special. If the city has different districts or neighborhoods with their own special flavor then each distinct area will have an avatar of its own, but there will still be one main avatar that represents the city as a whole. The avatars gain special powers from the energy of the city, which are based on the characteristics of that particular place.

The World We Make focuses on the newly born city of New York City. With all its different boroughs, seven different avatars were chosen: The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Jersey City, Staten Island, Queens, and NYC itself. Of these seven, six come together to protect New York, and one, Staten Island, breaks away and sequesters herself on her island. Initially, this seems unimportant to the other avatars but eventually, it becomes a much bigger problem.

Fighting to exist in The World We Make

Of course, if cities come to life, there must be someone trying to stop that. And there is. The World We Make is the second in Jemisin’s Great Cities series. In the first book, The City We Became, New York City actually wakes up and immediately has to fight for its life against the Woman in White, herself an avatar of an interdimensional city.

You see, our reality is just one of many possible realities and some interdimensional beings have decided it’s their job to go around supervising and shaping these different realities. They really don’t like when cities become conscious and they send in their creation, the Woman in White, to try and exterminate the new life.

New York City triumphs against the enemy in The City We Became, but it’s only a partial victory. The Woman in White and the dead city that she is the avatar of gain a foothold in Staten Island and continue to try and destroy New York City.

The World We Make

New York City isn’t the only sentient city in The World We Make. All the large cities of the world (except American cities for reasons that eventually are revealed) have avatars. The older cities form a cantankerous, stubborn oversight committee of sorts that sort of governs the sentient cities. They have a system where the previous youngest city mentors the current youngest city. This way the old cranky cities don’t have to deal with young avatars as they learn the ins and outs of being a sentient city. The older cities really don’t like being bothered by the younger cities. When New York City tries to ask for help because the enemy is still harassing them, the old cities basically say “your problem, leave us alone”.

An interconnected world

New York City tries hard to deal with the Woman in White on their own but eventually, two things become clear. The first is that they can’t do it on their own. The second is that it is definitely not just “their problem”. If the other cities cannot get over their elitism and listen then the whole world is in danger. 

The World We Make really explores how interconnected our world is. On a small scale, what happens in Queens affects what happens in Brooklyn and they both affect New York City as a whole. But on a larger scale, what happens in New York City affects what happens in Paris, which affects London, Hong Kong, and so on and so on. I liked that only by getting past their differences and working together can the world be saved. I thought it was a nice mirror for the world’s problems right now. 

A little confusing but eventually finds its voice

As I said earlier, The World We Make is the second book in Jemisin’s Greater Cities series. If you want to read this you really need to read The City We Became first because there is a lot that is explained there. You will be very lost at the beginning of The World We Make if you don’t have that information.

The World We Make is also very much a New York City book. If you are unfamiliar with the way the city is set up and its different boroughs you will be confused. I almost recommend looking at a map if you’re unfamiliar with the city before you start reading (just saying, including one at the front of the book would have been a nice touch Orbit).

That said, once you get about 50 pages in you should be able to understand the basics of what is going on. After that, the story is pretty good and should keep you engaged. There are quite a few main characters to follow and the story jumps between their different viewpoints but there is enough time devoted to each that it is satisfying and enjoyable.

I ❤ NYC

If you have a soft spot in your heart for New York City then you need to read this book. Jemisin clearly loves the city and it comes through on every page. Anyone else with similar feelings will eat this book up. Those who like a healthy dose of sci-fi with their fantasy will love it as well.

It does require an open mind to accept the idea of cities eventually having enough energy to become alive. But it’s a very interesting concept that was very fun to explore and ruminate on. I keep thinking about who my city’s avatar would be and what exactly they would be like. Read The World We Make and contemplate your own city’s personality.

My Rating: 7/10

The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin is available now. Do you plan on reading it? Let us know over on Twitter. And if you haven’t already, check out our latest book review from Orbit books, Light Perpetual!

Book Review: Light Perpetual by Andrzej Sapkowski

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