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In the Watchful City

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In the Watchful City es una novela corta que sirve como muestrario de las virtudes como escritore de S. Qiouyi Lu, ya que se trata de recopilación de relatos aunados por un hilo conductor un tanto laxo. Asistiremos a un despliegue de prosa que me ha recordado por momentos a Benjanun Sriduangkaew, entrelazando estilo muy variado, ya que algunos de los cuentos son epistolares, poemas… Cada uno distinto y evocador.

El entorno en el que se desarrolla la historia es ciencia ficción, con toques biocyberpunk como el propie autore indica en los agradecimientos. Le protagoniste de la historia es un ser humano modificado que ejerce como guardián en una ciudad, tomando posesión de las diferentes bestias y animales que la habitan para así controlar lo que va sucediendo, mientras su cuerpo real está limitado a existir en un baño de nutrientes. El detonador del relato es la aparición de otra persona, cuya misión en la vida es ir recopilando los relatos de los demás en forma de mementos. El resto de la novela es el intercambio de estos relatos entre les dos personajes, hasta llegar a la conclusión final.

Hay que tener en cuenta el uso que hace le autore de muchos pronombres “exóticos” para definir a los personajes, algunos de ellos es la primera vez que me los encuentro. No dificultan la lectura una vez que te acostumbras a ellos.

Una de las principales características de estos relatos es la emotividad que desprende cada uno de ellos, haciendo especial hincapié en las relaciones entre personas, el amor en diversas facetas y el sentido de pertenencia al grupo. Son cuentos para hacerte reflexionar.

El interés de cada relato será variable según las experiencias previas del lector y me hubiera gustado que hubiera algo más de conexión entre ellos aunque solo fuera para que el caleidoscopio de imágenes que nos ofrece le autore fuera más consistente, pero no por ello voy a dejar de recomendar una lectura muy interesante para quien guste del formato corto en el género.
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In his review, Sean has already pointed out what a big scope S. Qiouyi Lu's debut novella takes on, with juicy worldbuilding, a stories-within-stories structure and some big ideas for protagonist Anima to get ær head around. Anima lives in Ora, a city controlled by an extensive - and non-dystopian - surveillance network called The Gleaming. Anima is one of eight Nodes within The Gleaming, which means æ spends much of ær time out of ær body, possessing the minds of local animals or floating as light, responding to what is happening in the city and trying to maintain harmony and safety for the people within. The book switches between Anima's work to maintain Ora; Anima's past, conveyed through verse; and the stories æ is told by Vessel, a traveller with a qíjìtáng, or case of curiosities, about artefacts se carries. Through Vessel's stories, we learn more about the relationship between Ora and Skyland, adding extra nuance to our understanding of Ora and how it has developed itself while literally under the gaze of a more powerful, superiority-claiming neighbour. It also gives Lu an opportunity to switch gears and show off an impressive range: the poetry is one example of this, but in-depth description of a game of skycup, a fictional sports game which is introduced to the reader in a way that makes us immediately understand the rules, the stakes and the action within just a few pages? Now that's some serious skill.

In the Watchful City is an intentionally fragmented narrative, and it doesn't guide the reader to a big story-driven climax (there is a big moment towards the end of the novella, involving a completed suicide, but it's not a culmination of what has come before). Nor does it provide clear answers to the questions the novella raises, about identity and belonging both on the individual or collective scale: Anima ends ær time with Vessel with a different outlook on ær role as a Node and ær relationship with ær physical body, but on a broader scale, nothing has changed. Instead, what makes In the Watchful City cohere are its immaculate bio-cyberpunk vibes and its strong sense of place, and the roles of all the characters as part of that place (bonus: we get to read an Asian-inspired cyberpunk city that isn't just New York with some neon Chinese signs thrown in for set dressing!) It adds up to something that's all quite magical: I'm not quite sure how to summarise it, but In the Watchful City definitely left me feeling like I'd read a much longer book, and the world it creates will stick with me for a while to come.

Rating: 8/10
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An incredible addition to the science fiction genre, this novel takes you into a world so unlike our own you feel like a whole new being as you walk through the streets of Ora.
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TITLE: In the Watchful City
AUTHOR: S. Qiouyi Lu
192 pages, Tor.Com, ISBN 9781250792983 (paperback, also available in audio and e-book)

DESCRIPTION: (from Goodreads): The city of Ora is watching. Anima is an extrasensory human tasked with surveilling and protecting Ora’s citizens via a complex living network called the Gleaming. Although ær world is restricted to what æ can see and experience through the Gleaming, Anima takes pride and comfort in keeping Ora safe from harm. When a mysterious outsider enters the city carrying a cabinet of curiosities from around with the world with a story attached to each item, Anima’s world expands beyond the borders of Ora to places―and possibilities―æ never before imagined to exist. But such knowledge leaves Anima with a question that throws into doubt ær entire purpose: What good is a city if it can’t protect its people?

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

MY THOUGHTS: Stories have the power to change lives. Cliché, but very true … if the reader’s/listener’s mind is open to new ideas and to changing. Anima, the main character of In the Watchful City, starts out resistant to change and accepting of the party line. In fact, the first scene of the book shows us Anima using ær ability to inhabit and control animals in an attempt to capture someone trying to escape the city of Ora. It’s a tense, action-packed, vertiginous scene that sets Anima’s character up clearly, letting the reader see where æ is mentally and emotionally through the physical action. Why the runner is running is a mystery to Anima and to the reader until the very last moments of the scene, in which Anima must confront ær prejudices about citizens of Ora and citizens of neighboring Skyland.

Anima’s life is thrown into disarray with the arrival in Ora of Vessel, the mysterious outsider with stories to share. Those stories come at a price – Anima will have to give something of ærself in return – but as with the best storyteller/listener exchanges, Anima gets to decide what that something is and when it will be given. Anima even gets to decide which stories æ wants to hear of the plethora Vessel seems to have available. Each story has an incremental effect on how Anima views Ora, its history, and its rules, as well as what Anima wants ær life to be like going forward.

The sharing of stories affects Vessel as well, who has ser own history and challenges revealed through the visits with Anima. Where Anima is resistant to change, Vessel is actively looking to change ser circumstances and future. The stories affect the taller as much as the listener.

(A note here about pronouns: yes, both Anima and Vessel are non-binary humans who use different sets of pronouns. Some of the characters in the stories Vessel shares are non-binary, some are cisgender, some are transgender. In addition to a full spectrum of gender identities, the characters in the stories express a wide range of sexual identities as well.)

In the Watchful City is a wonderful hybrid of “stories within the story” and “mosaic novel” modes of writing. The stories Vessel shares are not directly connected to Anima or Vessel’s individual lives (although they clearly have an affect on the future course of those lives), but they are connected to each other (in sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle ways), building for the reader a sense of the shared history of Ora and the Skylands. Each of the stories also stands perfectly well on their own, without the connective tissue of the main action of the novel. Any one of them could appear in a magazine or an anthology and be a fantastic read. It takes, I think, a certain mastery of the form to make that work as effectively as it does here.

I should mention some content warnings: there is on-the-page suicide of a character, and several instances of physical or emotional abuse including the tradition of foot-binding. Foot-binding is just one of many aspects of Asian history, and in particular Chinese and Taiwanese history, that the book builds off to create the world in which it takes place.

In the Watchful City is a book whose core questions of identity and expectations, complacency and change, linger with the reader long after the final page. I cannot wait to see where S. Qiouyi Lu takes us next.

I received an electronic Advance Reading Copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The book released last month.
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It’s no coincidence that one of the main characters in S. Qiouyi Lu’s In the Watchful City carries with ser a qíjìtáng, or cabinet of curiosities. Lu’s novella is, itself, a cabinet of unusual mementos, with many smaller objects carefully folded into the larger structure.

On one level the plot is simple. The qíjìtáng is full of stories, and its owner, Vessel, who hovers between life and death, needs to add one more story to ser collection in order to have a second chance at life. (Vessel’s pronouns are se, ser and sers). So se asks Anima, one of eight people who provide surveillance for the city-state of Ora, for aer story. (Anima’s pronouns are ae, aer and aers).

But Anima’s life isn’t so simple. Ae serves as a node in the city’s Hub, which aer monitors by entering the consciousness of animals (including a gecko, raven, and wild dog during the course of the story). In this way, Ae can travel anywhere and yet aer body is fastened by a stem to a tank of amniotic-like fluid.

Lu likens Anima’s experience of being both fixed and all-knowing to our relationship with the internet. “We're sitting in front of a computer, and, physically, our body is stationed in front of this machine. But through this network, we're able to explore so much,” Lu says. “We’re able to go to faraway lands, see through the eyes of someone else.”

The topics ae covers in aer New Books interview include aer inspirations for the novella (such as China’s facial recognition technology), aer interest in linguistics, including neopronouns, and aer fascination with experimental narratives.

Lu is also a poet, editor, and translator and runs microverses, which publishes speculative flash fiction, poetry, and other short forms of storytelling.
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Fascinating worldbuilding, and characters. Tor novellas seem to always hit the mark exactly -- an amazing self-contained short story that leaves you dreaming of more.
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"The Gleaming is everywhere, and it is nowhere. It is simultaneous. It intersects with itself. All beings are infused with the power of it, yet only a few have access to it directly."

TW: Suicide and discussions of suicide 

This is considered a utopian society, where everyone has their place and job. It is considered a utopia by the people in charge, but as Anima (a cloistered extrasensory human) watches over their city, they discovers not everyone is happy. 

This is such an interesting premise it is complex in its build. Anima is a nonbinary human with a direct connection to the Gleaming. The Gleaming is a complex living network that surveils the inhabitants of the city of Ora and maintains harmony. They survey people's unique signatures such as gait, balance, tempo, pheromones, body odor and voice. Anima had a symbiotic relationship with the Gleaming, like a mushroom at the roots of a tree. 

There are several words in this book that are used as pronouns to discuss the aspects of anima. Æ is Anima's senses and physical abilities. Aer is Anima's human form/physical form. There is also Vessel who uses Ser (which is the equivalent of Aer) and Se (which is the equivalent of æ). 

Vessel is this being who newly comes to the city of Ora with a suitcase filled with things. Each thing has it's own story and the only catch is, if you hear the stories you must leave something of your own. Vessel is a psychopomp, which is a guide of souls to the place of the dead. They have one more item to collect before they are free to live a normal life. 

Vessel is an awakening for Anima. Anima has lived in Ora most of their life and is still unhappy. Still feels that their experience with humanity and the overall human experience is lacking. Vessel helps them explore experiences outside Anima's own through story telling. 

Overall this was a really unique and interesting science fiction story. I do wish the æ and the aer were elaborated on before I started the book as I spent a book portion of the book making inferences about their meaning and trying to decide if they were separat entities altogether. I have personally never before encountered their uses, but after I figured it out, it really added to the story for me. 

I also would have liked a bit more expansion to the world. We never really encouraged may of the people that lived in Ora, and so we never really got to see what the results looked like on how the city was run for more of the occupants. I would have loved to dive in and get to know at least a few of people who loved inside the city.

This story was really interesting and I really enjoyed it.
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In The Watchful City is original and beautifully written.

- It has stories within stories
- Lush and whimsical prose
- Biocyberpunk and mythology
- set in an Asian-inspired world
- Queer characters using neopronouns

I'm so daunted when I started this one since it uses a non-traditional narrative and neopronouns, and I keep getting confused. It is such a layered story. I love how it explores grief, identity, self-acceptance, and what happens when your view is challenged; the questions that arise and how the characters reflect on it.

 Overall, In the Watchful City is a unique and engaging story. It defies genre with fantastic and vibrant world-building.

Thank you so much, Tordotcom and Netgalley for the review copy. All thoughts and opinions are mine.
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I couldn't believe how much story was packed into such a small package!
The story within a story setup was such a treat with this author's very dreamlike and atmospheric writing style. I would love a whole series, bouncing around in this world. There is just so much to learn about our own reality, in that suitcase full of objects and memories.
A really great time!
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Summer reading, for some, is about popcorn, reading something fun and light. For some, it’s about catching up on longer reads or series, really digging in. But for me, I’m happiest when I get something really out there, something that pushes boundaries and upends expectations. Something that makes the summer—my least favorite season—disappear entirely, opening up into a fascinating new world. That’s why I was overjoyed to find In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu, an engrossing and utterly new novella. 

TorDotCom is known to push conventions of genre and has been supporting more diverse authors, but this book is quite a strong push even for them. More of a shove, really, into the more highly speculative that blends Sci-Fi and Fantasy, refusing to locate itself in past or present. It is a book about Now, and it tells that story in a fragmentary way. Stories within stories, told in prose and verse, dapple the framing narrative and refuse to resolve into any easy answers. Lu is asking hard questions about selfhood and statehood, after all, and they shouldn’t have easy answers.

Ora is a city state "in exile," its deadly past the justification for its present surveillance and obsession with safety. It seems a progressive city, one with high literacy and health for all its citizens. It achieves this wellbeing, however, by employing far less utopian tactics to keep its citizens hale—and to keep them at all. Few are allowed to leave Ora, and few are allowed to enter. It is a highly contained mega-organism, a city made into a kind of single entity by the employment of constant, mutual monitoring. This panopticon is less about observation from on high, though, and more about a city whose eyes are all aimed inward, ceaselessly observing by means of the Gleaming. 

The Gleaming is a fusion of magic, qi, and technology that suffuses the city, making it possible for agents like Anima to spread ær consciousness and will across broad topics or locations. It is like a collective consciousness for a whole city, one that Anima must have special biological implants to encompass and navigate. Because of ær modifications, Anima is able to tap into this datastream and process huge amounts of information, or focus ær attention on very specific things, even taking over smaller consciousnesses like rats and pigeons and moving inside of them. 

Into this seemingly closed loop comes Vessel, an enigmatic artist, arrives by means unknown and for reasons se keeps to serself. Se offers Anima access to her qijitang, a case that unfolds to display precious and enigmatic objects. Each one has a story to tell, an affecting glimpse into another’s life. There’s an intimacy to the stories—which are willingly shared, not just observed—that Anima’s omnipresent eyes have never truly seen. And as ær own eyes are opened, Anima begins to wonder about ær true role in the collective, and whether change is possible.

Change is, in fact, the point. Anima wanted change when æ became a node, but æ has since stagnated, ær mutability very predictable, ær help unwelcome or insufficient. Æ is unable to save a desperate young woman, and is compelled by the laws of the land to pursue a fugitive whose only crime is loving outside the borders of Ora. Æ struggles with these events, but it is only in the context of narrative— ær own and others’—that æ can see the links between cause and effect, law and consequence. 

What we see of the individuals represented in the qijitang is diverse, sprawling. All we really see of Ora’s citizens is their attempts to escape, either by running or by committing suicide. Anima gives us the sense that these are aberrations, but are they? The stated goal of the city is not oppression (it never is, of course), but protection and support. To a large extent, it even seems to deliver on that promise! And it’s easy to enjoy those things, to fall into complacency. But for In the Watchful City, complacency and safety are dangerous. There is no avatar of the system to hate, no jackbooted menace to defeat. That very facelessness is intentional. A system is harder to defeat than a person. But what can a person do? 

Tell stories, responds Vessel, and responds Lu. I adore stories within stories, and these narratives are expertly crafted. They’re also extremely different from one another and from the framing narrative featuring Anima and Vessel, making this book feel extraordinarily large, almost as big as Ora itself. Lu is a keen observer, and shows us what æ sees with great emotional care and scenic clarity. Every story within the story is a little jewel, remarkably faceted and enhancing the crowning achievement of the overall plot. The book is almost immediately wise, not just smart. Anima's reflections on ær childhood are distilled to incisive observations expressed with poetic elegance, and the rest of the novella, written in prose, is dreamlike, but sharply so. It is the kind of dream that has teeth.
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I have to admit, I had trouble focusing at first, because some of the pronouns used in this book were se/ser and ser in Polish is cheese, so I kept thinking about cheese and I love cheese. 

The beginning of the book is a bit confusing--with chases and characters talking about some issues with no exposition whatsoever and I started to worry that I won't like the book. But it turns out it's an embedded narrative and that was an intro to some short stories told by the characters. 

It's hard for me to explain the details of each story, because honestly, I didn't find this book very interesting, maybe because the author assumed the reader will understand the complex sci-fi world and loosely connected stories with ease, but honestly, I didn't. It just wasn't cohesive enough. Sci-fi is difficult enough to read, and I felt like the author was making it extra hard. I don't want to be rude about this, but I think this book would have been executed so much better if it'd had one, clear idea behind it.
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In the Watchful City is a novel in story form, a structure I’m usually a big fan of, but the stories rarely felt fully developed  and in the end they just didn’t coalesce for me into an entirely effective or cohesive whole, though there is a true originality in style and content here.

The setting is the city-state of Ora, which has managed to escape from under the dominating Skyland empire and, in an attempt to keep its residents free and happy, the city uses upgraded humans as “nodes” in an AI-like surveillance network (“the Gleaming”).  Some specialized nodes can leap into the bodies of living creatures (though not human ones) and control them in order to intervene when necessary.  Anima is one such node and she has been happily enacting her role for some time. Her regular, contented life though is disturbed by the appearance of a foreigner named Vessel who brings with them a sort of cabinet of curiosities, each of which has a tale behind it. Anima agrees to give something of her own to Vessel’s cabinet in return for hearing the stories behind several objects she selects.  The novel then alternates between the objects’ tales and the overarching arc of how the stories change Anima’s view of ær world (the novel uses non-binary pronouns throughout).

Dealing with the over-narrative first, I did like how S. Qiouyi Lu offered up some fresh takes, raising for instance intriguing questions regarding benevolent surveillance, as compared to most Western narratives that portray surveillance societies as exclusively dystopian.  As a more concrete example of this different slant, while Westerners again tend to think of surveillance societies as a removal of all freedom, the author shows us that Ora allows for (thoughtful) suicide/euthanasia, an individual liberty many bastions of “freedom” outlaw. Meanwhile, while not quite as unique, the vision of Ora as a center of biotech, employing the natural world more than is typical in tech solutions, along with the Asian-inspired setting/folktales, added to a sense of freshness. The same for the switch to verse in Anima’s voice. Unfortunately, the world felt a bit too sketchy and many of the themes not mined to their fullest potential. And while Anima is an engaging and affective character, her story felt a bit predicable, too overtly announced for my liking, and again, undeveloped or too quickly glossed over, as when, for example, she witnesses a traumatizing death; we do see the impact on aer, and the scene itself is quite powerful, but it did seem too fast.

The stories, while exploring similar themes (loss, sense of self, etc.) and having a similar fabulist feel to them, vary in tone and genre.  “A Death Made Manifold” is a sort of queer Weird Western version of “The Monkey’s Paw.” “This Form I hold Now” follows a trans character who opts to have their feet bound and who also competes in competitive “skycup”. “The Sky and Everything Under” is an epistolary story centered on an undying (perhaps death-transcendent) queer relationship set against the background of empire and revolution.  And lastly, “As Dark as Hunger” is another queer story, this set in a world of mermaids and focusing on a fisherwoman whose past and heritage collide in horrifying fashion. The first I’d say was the weakest while the second spent too much time on the competition; I can’t say I found either story or either of the main characters particularly compelling or memorable. I thought the epistolary form in the third story was effective and found this the most moving and effective story overall. The last story felt too on the nose and had I thought some points that didn’t add up, placing it closer to the first two than the third in terms of its impact. Overall, the stories, like the overarching narrative, felt under-developed (save for the third).

I quite appreciated the variety in In the Watchful City, the linked-story structure, the multiplicity of genres, the difference in tones, the verse format of Anima’s voice, and as noted also liked the background setting. But I would have liked to have seen the stories lengthened and more developed, with more stories added in; this felt almost like a chapbook or a cobbled together work than a unified created start-to-finish whole. That said, the author is certainly one I’ll watch going forward.
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3 stars 

<b> “Why prevent Orans from seeing Skylanders? History? Are politics worth separating families and lovers for?” </b> 

rep // nonbinary MC, neopronouns 

cw // suicide, murder, necromancy

In the Watchful City is an Asian-centric adult queer fantasy novella about living and all that comes with life and stories with an ending that is equal parts thrilling and scary. 

The main character Anima (æ/ær/ær) is part of the Ora’s surveillance system the Gleaming, one of the eight nodes in the inner sanctum. This gives Anima the ability to take the consciousness of animals (think like Animorphs!) When æ meets Vessel (se/ser/ser), who carries a qíjìtáng full of knickknacks and memories from different people, Anima is attracted to these stories and considers that there might be more to life than simply guarding the city. 

I don’t think I completely understood everything that had happened. And yet, I enjoyed the storytelling so much! Lu’s overall concept and execution of bringing mostly Asian history and culture into the story are so satisfying. There were maybe five non-English sentences, including Mandarin and Manchu (both languages were renamed in the story), and some of the terms are real things like Bǐyìniǎo (比翼鳥: birds that fly in twos; the word is used to describe soul mates). Also, I love the political animosity between countries and that a lot of the side characters’ names were of different romanizations and languages (Spanish, Mandarin Pinyin with tones, Mandarin Wade–Giles with tones, Cantonese, Hokkien, Japanese, Thai, etc.). Another thing I was happy to see was that for Mandarin names, family names come before given names!

In the Watchful City consists of fragmented stories.  Through Anima’s story, ær interactions with Enigma (e/em/eir) and Vessel, all the stories in the qíjìtáng, we get the themes of mental health and grief, assimilation, growth and living. Lu mentioned in ær acknowledgments that the narrative is focused on agency and it is also a decolonial story. I found the side stories to be incredibly beautiful and grief stricken, a topic that Anima also struggles with. If these are the best stories of people, why are they so full of grief? I can't promise that you'll like this book, but I can promise that you'll never stop thinking about it.  

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I was quite impressed with how much I walked away with from this novella. I found it creative, thought-provoking, and very explorative.

In the Watchful City captures a unique, non-traditional narrative style to help illustrate the themes and feelings of the characters and their journey. The stories within target ideas regarding identity, family, trauma, choice, and what it means to live. There's so much to unpack, and I found this incredibly full of heart for something of this length.

I love following the story of someone whose world view is suddenly challenged, and we get to experience their questions and exploration together with them. I also enjoyed the blend of mythology and futurism, combining the old and the new, and how queer this story was.

This was so unlike anything I've read, and at first it was daunting, but I truly enjoyed myself and I'm very intrigued with Lu's future work.

If you enjoy reading stories within stories, I especially recommend giving this a try!

Content Warnings: on-page suicide, mention of a suicide attempt, self-harm, body mutilation, blood, family abandonment
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Published by on August 31, 2021

The Gleaming, like the Force from Star Wars, is a connective energy shared by all living beings, although only a few have the ability to access its power. Anima, a node in the city of Ora, has that ability. Ær job (æ being the pronoun that Anima uses to describe ærself) is to watch over Ora and protect its inhabitants, a job made possible by ær ability to (1) access the Gleaming, and (2) transfer her consciousness to animals and control their movements while æ inhabits their bodies.

Anima’s ability to body-hop might make her a valuable protector if she kept a gorilla handy, but she’s usually jumping into birds and lizards, critters that contribute little value to a rescue. Anima is frustrated when she tries to prevent a suicide by drowning and learns that it isn’t easy to herd a school of fish. A node named Enigma needs to remind her that she can’t protect everyone and that her real duty is to “create a society that provides for its citizens . . . where no one is invisible, where we can meet the needs of every one of our people” by “protecting our sovereignty.” Just how hopping into dogs and frogs might accomplish that lofty goal is unclear. It seems very much like an excuse to maintain a surveillance state, but the purpose of surveillance is equally obscure.

Anima is a node in Ora, a city on a world with squirrels and geckos that might be Earth but for its two suns and the Skylands. Nodes can “fold the Gleaming” and thus look through the eyes of anyone who is infused with the Gleaming, but only nodes in the inner sanctum can body jump. While Anima is jumping among animals, her body rests in an amniotic bath that apparently moisturizes her skin. Anima’s jurisdiction as a protector of Ora ends at the “aerospace border” that separates Ora from the Skylands above. Like much of the novel, the Skylands are too underdeveloped to add anything but question marks to the story.

A visitor named Vessel escapes Anima’s notice, a feat that should be impossible, when he enters Ora with a collection of mementos. Each memento comes with a story. Vessel relates some of those stories to Anima. A fish scale, for example, leads to a story about a woman’s moral dilemma as she decides whether her personal comfort should be derived from the exploitation of mermaids. A cup inspires that story of an athletic competition that sparks a riot. A marionette controller leads to the story of a man who tried to bring his dead brother back to life. The stories, each complete with a teaching moment, are more interesting than the novel that surrounds them.

Vessel wants a memento from Anima, but she attaches a condition to her willingness to part with it. Like so much else in the novel, Vessel’s reason for needing Anima’s memento to complete his collection is unexplained. Anima’s decision concerning her contribution of a memento is the story’s final dramatic moment, but it is underwhelming. What will Anima do? is a less important question than Do I care? S. Qiouyi Lu’s enviable prose stye fails to overcome the story’s failure to amount to much, but some of the internal stories are worth reading for their standalone value.

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What is the last book you read that uses neopronouns?

In the Watchful City is another among the strangest, but deeply enjoyable books I've been reading lately (thank you @tordotcompub for the e-arc!)

This is a definition defying book that blurs the line between genres in all the right ways. Anima is a node in Ora City's inner sanctum. Æ is responsible for overseeing the safety of the city and its citizens. But, æ can't protect everyone, and this knowledge comes with a price, and makes æ question ær purpose. And after Anima meets Vessel, who is collecting artifacts and stories, ær perspective continues to shift as æ learns more about the world outside Ora City.

In the Watchful City is a book that is rich in feeling, details, and neopronouns. There is a wide range of pronoun usage (she, he, they, æ, and se to name a few that appear on page) and it was really refreshing to see.

The story unfolds around Anima, but we also witness the memories Vessel has collected, stories that deal heavily in themes of grief and change the way that Anima understand ær world and ær experiences.

It was a really interesting book, and I loved how conceptual Ora City and Anima's role and experience as a node was. It was a really unique experience and the emotional through lines with the stories and Anima's life were on point. I don't know if it's a book I would recommend to everyone, but it is definitely one I can recommend.

In the Watchful City is out next week on August 31st!
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**I was provided with an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review**

Taking place in an Asian centric world, In the Watchful City follows an extrasensory human called Anima who through a network called the Gleaming monitors the city of Ora and it’s citizens. Along with the other Guardians of the city, the Gleaming allows ær to jump into the bodies of the different animals that live there. One day æ finds that the city’s borders have been breached by an unwarranted traveller carrying a suitcase full of peculiar items. Each item holds a link, a story to someone and somewhere out in the wider world which, upon hearing them, open Anima’s mind and curiosity to life beyond the walls æ has always known.

This is one captivating science fantasy novella (penned as biocyberpunk by the author), somewhat reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities though it also has the feel of stumbling through one of the doors in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series.

Lu’s writing skilfully explores the themes of authority, identity and grief and their use of a non-traditional, mish-mash of narrative styles brilliantly captures the individual atmospheres and emotions of the recounted tales.

If you’re a fan of stories within stories definitely give this one a read. 
Final Rating – 3.75/5 Stars
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“Æ has simply spent so long as a node that æ has forgotten how it feels to live otherwise.”

S. Qiouyi Lu’s debut novella, In the Watchful City, focuses on the experiences of Anima (æ/ær/ær), one of eight supernatural humans connected to a living network known as the Gleaming and tasked with monitoring the great city of Ora. While Anima isn’t allowed to leave the node æ inhabits, æ can take possession of various animals in ær duties as node, which is ær primary—and limited—way of experiencing the world. One day, a stranger manages to breach the security and surveillance networks of Ora, and this stranger offers Anima a trade: stories for a story.

In the Watchful City makes another book I’ve read in the back half of this year that, while I can certainly see it not being to everyone’s taste, was pretty much tailor made to my brand. Story within a story structure, including different formats like official transcripts and poetry? Check. Asian-influenced setting with certain elements subverted in interesting, intriguing ways by the author? Check. Beautiful, flexible prose bent in lovely ways to fit the various showcased styles? That too. A gorgeously described aesthetic melding solar and cyber punk? Yup. Queer as all hell, with more characters that use neopronouns than not? Naturally.

The novella explores everything from attempts to raise the dead to epistolary political intrigue and betrayal to mermaids wearing other people’s faces, and I think every narrative lands quite well. Fans of short fiction will find a lot to delight in, though if you’re looking for one consistent narrative from beginning to end, this might not be the novella for you. The clever ways the stories relate to each other and to Anima’s world delighted me, and Anima’s own journey has a satisfactory resolution.

Though powerful and well-written, the subject matter within In the Watchful City can get quite heavy at times; the author provides content warnings for completed suicide and self-injury in the beginning of the novella.

I wasn’t expecting to add yet another novella to my growing collection of go-to recommendations, but In the Watchful City took me by complete surprise with how much it delighted me. For science fiction fans looking for a short but incredibly powerful read that will transport you not just to one new world, but several, all while examining immense overarching themes of power and identity and home, look no further than In the Watchful City.

Thank you to and NetGalley for an advance reader copy. All opinions are my own.
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A really fascinating take on things like neo-pronouns and collective-consciousness. I sometimes struggle with non-human narrators/protagonists, so found that hard. But overall, a great premise and a really enjoyable read.
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This was an interesting book and the meaning it conveys its beautiful. I love how the story develops, but it's not so great, or appealing for that matter. It really pains me to give it 2 stars.
2 out of 5 stars.
Thank you publisher and NetGalley for a copy.
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