"The City We Became,“ a love/hate song to and rallying cry for author N.K. Jemisin’s home of New York, expands her story “The City, Born Great.”


When a great city reaches the point when it's ready to come to life, it chooses a human avatar, who guides the city through its birthing and contends with an extradimensional Enemy who seeks to strike at this vulnerable moment. Now, it is New York City’s time to be born, but its avatar is too weakened by the battle to complete the process. So each of the individual boroughs instantiates its own avatar to continue the fight. Manhattan is a multiracial grad student new to the city with a secret violent past that he can no longer quite remember; Brooklyn is an African American rap star-turned-lawyer and city councilwoman; Queens is an Indian math whiz here on a visa; the Bronx is a tough Lenape woman who runs a nonprofit art center; and Staten Island is a frightened and insular Irish American woman who wants nothing to do with the other four. Can these boroughs successfully awaken and heal their primary avatar and repel the invading white tentacles of the Enemy? The novel is a bold calling out of the racial tensions dividing not only New York City, but the U.S. as a whole; it underscores that people of color are an integral part of the city’s tapestry even if some white people prefer to treat them as interlopers. It's no accident that the only white avatar is the racist woman representing Staten Island, nor that the Enemy appears as a Woman in White who employs the forces of racism and gentrification in her invasion; her true self is openly inspired by the tropes of the xenophobic author H.P. Lovecraft. Although the story is a fantasy, many aspects of the plot draw on contemporary incidents. In the real world, white people don’t need a nudge from an eldritch abomination to call down a violent police reaction on people of color innocently conducting their daily lives, and just as in the book, third parties are fraudulently transferring property deeds from African American homeowners in Brooklyn, and gentrification forces out the people who made the neighborhood attractive in the first place. In the face of these behaviors, whataboutism, #BothSides, and #NotAllWhitePeople are feeble arguments.


Fierce, poetic, uncompromising.


’The Last Odyssey’


“Inferno” with rocket launchers and astrolabes: James Rollins takes his readers to hell in “The Last Odyssey.”


You’re making a mistake if you approach a Rollins novel without suspending every ounce of disbelief that you hold. Otherwise, who would swallow a hook baited with the premise that, by way of the ancient Homeric epics, modern jihadists are on the verge of leveraging the supernatural powers of the underworld, following the footsteps of a shadowy cabal, which, as Pope Leo X tells Leonardo da Vinci — yes, that Leonardo da Vinci — once upon a time “found the entrance to Hell”? It’s up to the good guys of Sigma Force, the secret and highly lethal special-ops division of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to save the world from such malign possibilities. As always, Cmdr. Gray Pierce and company perform superhuman feats in the service of truth, justice, and the American way, with some sympathetic and highly capable civilian in tow. In this case, it’s a scholar named Elena Cargill, who, apart from holding “dual PhDs in paleoanthropology and archaeology,” is also the daughter of the chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, making her an attractive target indeed. As we meet her, Elena is working through an archaeological puzzle: How did the Arabian super-dhow that she’s discovered under hundreds of feet of Greenlandic ice get there? It might just have something to do with a clockwork mechanism that steers interested parties toward the flaming depths of Tartarus and its resident demons, titans, metal mastiffs, and their ilk. You’d think it no place to visit, but it’d be handy to have such tools in one’s kit if one were bent on world conquest. So it is that Elena and the DARPAnauts go up against a nefarious band of terrorists, one a James Bond-worthy giant and the other, this being equal-opportunity evil, a smart and ever so ill-tempered woman who “savor(s) the kill to come” and wreaks an awful lot of damage, as supervillains will. Mayhem ensues.


Improbable and sometimes silly, but Rollins spins an entertaining thriller out of a long string of what-ifs.