49 pages 1 hour read

N. K. Jemisin

The World We Make

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


The World We Make, published in 2022, is the second fantasy novel in N. K. Jemisin’s Great Cities trilogy. Jemisin is a three-time Hugo Award winner and New York Times best-selling author who writes across fantasy and science fiction subgenres and is best known for exploring themes of oppression and racial injustice. This guide references an e-book version of the 2022 Orbit Books edition.

Content Warning: The source material deals extensively with xenophobia and racism, including slurs and racist violence. There are also allusions to anti-gay/anti-queer sentiment.

Plot Summary

The World We Make picks up three months after the events of the first book in the Great Cities trilogy have transpired. Neek, the formerly unnamed primary avatar of New York City, is now living in a house with several of the other avatars. The mysterious Manhattan, or “Manny,” pays for these lodgings. Although Staten Island remains tethered to R’lyeh, the other five boroughs (now including Jersey City) and Neek try to prepare for the next conflict. R’lyeh sends periodic reminders of the looming threat, using tendrils to control peoples’ bodies and a haunting song that influences the thoughts of the city’s inhabitants.

Soon the avatars find themselves attacked in unexpected ways. Neek is hit with a wave of outsider anger directed at New York City that leaves him momentarily unconscious. In an altercation with a racist aggressor in the street, Padmini realizes that suddenly her “city-power”—the abilities each avatar derives from their particular city or borough—is gone and Queens is un-alive. Although both losses prove temporary, the group speculates that the new mayoral candidate, Ruben Panfilo might be a tool or tactic of R’lyeh’s that is causing these unusual attacks. He is running on a platform of fearmongering and xenophobia.

Things escalate when a demonstration on Nostrand Avenue turns violent. Individuals have congregated there to block traffic and wave an assortment of flags alongside pro-Panfilo signage, and when an altercation occurs, one of them pulls out a paintball gun and begins to shoot the neighborhood observers with frozen paintballs. Although Brooklyn uses her city-power to stop the violence and force the aggressors to flee, her own daughter is wounded during the incident. Enraged by the failure of the city police to intervene, Brooklyn declares her intention to join the mayoral race.

On Staten Island, Aislyn learns that, while R’lyeh is not directly controlling Panfilo, his election would serve R’lyeh’s long-term plan. Even though she thinks of R’lyeh as her friend and is flattered by her attention, Aislyn still worries about the changes on the island, especially its homogenization.

At Brooklyn’s campaign headquarters, R’lyeh takes control of the avatars’ Zoom meeting to request that they negotiate with her. She tells them that “human-style creativity” is responsible for the spin-off of new universes that destroy the old ones in their wake. Then she turns into a blinding white light and attempts to force them to look upon her real form. As the others try to look away or cover their eyes, Bronca quotes “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe, causing a massive power outage that finally releases them from her grip.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the others, Manny begins tracking down various cities and requesting that they call a “Summit.” Arriving at Brooklyn’s campaign headquarters one afternoon, Manny encounters Peter Milam, head of the Police Protection Association, who has stopped by to offer Brooklyn an endorsement. Brooklyn expresses concern over how to manage the NYPD, noting their corruption and power. Manny decides that the best course of action is to reach out to the source of his financial wealth and resources—his family. His mother agrees to favorably influence the NYPD and assist with campaign funding in exchange for Manny returning home and taking up his real calling: to be the future avatar of Chicago once the city is born (which happens once cities attain a certain level of cultural consciousness).

After a city clerical error results in the deeds of her brownstones being sold from underneath her, Brooklyn finally goes to court to make her case. The courtroom is packed with individuals, a select few of whom cause a pro-Panfilo disruption by chanting his campaign slogan. Abruptly, Brooklyn feels herself become un-alive and loses her city-power—the same thing that happened to Padmini. There is a temporary blackout, and when the lights come back on, Brooklyn sees that a tendril has attached itself to the opposing lawyer. The judge finds the case in favor of Brooklyn, cheekily quoting lyrics from MC Free (Brooklyn’s hip-hop alter ego) as he does so and generating a blast of city energy. Brooklyn finds her city-power and status restored. However, after her first debate with Panfilo, Brooklyn once more finds herself the target of harassment when she discovers that Conall McGuiness and his white nationalist group, the Proud Men, are following her vehicle. At her direction, her driver calls the police for assistance, and they outrun the Proud Men, trapping Conall in a body shop where he disappears.

A Summit is finally called, held at what’s left of Atlantis. Right before the meeting, Manny informs the others of his decision to return to his family and Chicago. During the Summit, R’lyeh appears and launches an attack. Because the cities are unprepared, she quickly gains the advantage and comes close to destroying them. Atlantis, a specter surrounded in shadow and fog, ejects everyone from her city, permanently breaking it and sending herself to a realm filled with dead trees representing former multiverses.

Now joined by Aislyn, the others prepare to fight R’lyeh over the city. R’lyeh notices that other cities from the Summit are coming to New York City’s aid. Before she can attempt to fight them all, the Ur—the preternatural extraterrestrial beings orchestrating the attack—intervene by pulling R’lyeh back to Ur and dragging New York City along with her. While there, Padmini, who has been privy to visions of the multiversal tree, puts the pieces together. She confronts the Ur, who have attacked humanity because they believe that human creativity is destroying other universes. In fact, Padmini explains, it is the Ur who are causing the collapse of universes by expecting it to happen. Furthermore, all of the dead multiversal trees show that the Ur have tried and failed many times to stop cities from being born; each time, the cities come back stronger. Forced to face these truths, the Ur realize that annihilating the cities isn’t necessary and retreat, letting everyone safely go. In the Coda, Manny chooses to stay among the other avatars of New York City as Manhattan, Brooklyn wins the election, and they all enjoy the calm after the storm.

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