I actually wasn’t sure if I was gonna read this book. I thought I would also be in for a long wait at my library, but, once I got it immediately after the release, I just thought, why not?. And to be honest, I’m surprised that I enjoyed it so much.
I have a couple of disclaimers first. I have only been to NYC three times, never more than a day, and didn’t particularly like the city, except for the Met and Strand bookstore. So this beautiful love letter of a novel to the city didn’t affect me the same way it would to someone who lives there, or is from the city itself since the beginning. The second point is that the author has tried to subvert the Lovecraftian tropes in this book, particularly deconstructing the racism in his works, but I can’t comment anything about it because I’ve never read any Lovecraft before – I only know this basic information because the author talked about it in an event.
But despite these two personal shortcomings, I actually had fun reading this novel. The world building is weird and interesting and definitely showcases Jemisin’s immense talent. And the whole idea of one person representing each borough of NYC was done exceedingly well. Even I could understand why a particular character was Manhattan or Bronx or Brooklyn. But I’m sure, locals will relate to it even better.
And seeing a Tamilian immigrant graduate student Padmini as the embodiment of Queens delighted me which was made even sweeter when Jemisin mentioned that she chose Padmini because Jackson Heights is a prominent South Asian community, and the author herself visits there a lot because she loves eating idlis.
Staten Island was the one borough I was skeptical about because I was confused between hating the character for being a racist bigot as well as sympathizing with her for being sheltered, naive, and, from an abusive family. It was only after listening to the author’s reasoning behind choosing such a character, I was satisfied a bit.
Jemisin’s books are always full of underlying themes and this one is no different. I would go as far as to say there is nothing subtle here and it’s all in your face – the villain may have a form but from the get go, we understand that the villain represents white supremacy, racism, bigotry and other problems which many big cities are facing currently like gentrification, homelessness etc. This book can come across as offensive and stereotypical to many and I don’t deny it at all, but I also felt that I understood why the characters were behaving the way they were, and people like that exist, and the circumstances that make them that way are very much the reality of our society. Everyone of us has prejudices, or have done things we regret, or are cynical about the world, or are just plain selfish – that doesn’t make us evil, just human – and I think this point comes across well in the book too.
To conclude, this was a fascinating look at how grand an author’s imagination can be and while I’ve been very vague in my review above, it’s only because I don’t have the right words to describe this book. It’s huge in its canvas but also small and relatable, and that’s what makes it interesting. If you have loved the author’s previous works, you’ll probably read this anyway. But I’ll definitely recommend it to anyone who loves NYC because the city really is the heart and soul of this book; and anyone who is interested in Lovecraftian tropes might also enjoy this. I did not see that ending coming and now I’m definitely more enthusiastic about the series than I was at the beginning of this book. Can’t wait to see what’s more in store for us.