Cover Image: In the Watchful City

In the Watchful City

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

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!
Was this review helpful?
**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
Was this review helpful?
“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 Tor.com and NetGalley for an advance reader copy. All opinions are my own.
Was this review helpful?
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.
Was this review helpful?
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.
Was this review helpful?
In The Watchful City, by S. Qiouyi Lu, calls itself a ‘mosaic novella,’ which is a fitting description. The book is organized into two parts. One follows Anima, an augmented human – one of several who oversees the city of Ora. She acts like a foundation for the second part of the story; a series of vignettes and novellas that have interconnected themes and morals. The plot revolves around a mysterious storyteller with a box of wonders who comes to visit the city of Ora. The storyteller asks Anima to select objects from their collection, and they will tell the story of the object. In exchange, the storyteller extracts the promise that Anima tells their own story and provides an object to add to the collection.

What I liked about In The Watchful City:

The collection of stories span a nice range of genres and most accurately would fall into Science Fantasy, a combining of two of my favorite subjects
Anima’s story on the outside was sweet and touching and I enjoyed their ending
The prose of this novella is quite impressive and manages to be both flowery and poetic without being too overbearing
The storyteller added a very fun layer of mystery and intrigue into the story
The worldbuilding was very engaging
My positives for this impressive novella essentially revolve around the fact that the book crafts a beautiful and layered world that begs to be explored on every page. I like stories that elevate and celebrate the art of storytelling, it creates a clever meta-conversation that can be very enjoyable. The melding of all different genres and stories shows that Qiouyi Lu is a very creative and talented writer. However, there were some areas that I struggled with as well.

What I didn’t like about In The Watchful City:

Although the prose was enchanting, I didn’t emotionally connect with almost any of the short stories. I had a hard time getting pulled into them. 
Although I enjoyed the ending of Anima’s story, the short page length of this novella –combined with the fact that it shares the space with a number of sub-novellas within the novella — meant that I struggled to connect with Anima as a character
The book feels too quickly paced, jumping from story to story when I often wasn’t done with the previous one
I struggled to connect with a lot of this story. Despite its beautiful writing, the characters came off as shallow and listless. I often felt like I was reading a lot of gorgeous window dressing. Most of the characters felt like they were faceless characters in a fable, there to teach the reader a lesson. I think a lot of my struggle stemmed from the book’s short length. There is so much crammed into this novella that it feels like it would have benefited from a larger size to luxuriate in the good more.

In The Watchful City is different and it is beautiful. It’s a creative ode to storytelling that defies genre and expectation. It’s crammed full of colorful ideas and interesting worlds. Although I struggled to connect with many of the characters, it’s likely it was a personal issue and you may feel right at home with them. As one of the more original pieces I have read in 2021, I definitely recommend you check it out.

Rating: In The Watchful City – 7.0/10
-Andrew
Was this review helpful?
Took a while for me to get into it. In the end, it reminded me a lot of Each of Us a Desert by Mark Oshiro, which is my favourite book, but this is just slightly less impactful.
I wish the background of Ora was given earlier in the story instead of around the 60-70% mark.
I listened to the audiobook as well (it's on Scribd even though the book isn't supposed to have been published yet). Normally when the author reads the book themselves it's great, but in this case, ær reads it so blandly with no emotion at all it sounds more like ær reading a textbook
Was this review helpful?
In The Watchful City is a gorgeous, lush read that weaves stories inside stories to build a vivid, Asian-centric world. I loved how it disrupted expected western narrative structures to deliver something that feels transcendent. As the main character finds aer horizon expand through folkloric tales, the reader is drawn into the complex themes and worldbuilding. If you love the idea of beautiful prose and a futuristic, biocyberpunk world - this is the book for you.

Anima is an extrasensory human who uses a network known as the Gleaming to take control of various animals and watch over the city of Ora's citizens. Anima is content with the life ae have, taking great pride in aer role in keeping Ora safe. When a mysterious visitor arrives carrying a cabinet of objects from around the world, Anima finds aerself learning about the world beyond aer city's borders. This knowledge leads to aer questioning about aer purpose.

What stood out to me about this book was how gorgeously it was written. If you enjoyed reads such as How You Lose The Time War, I think you'd find a similar joy in the mesmerising prose of In The Watchful City. This book has a very experimental, fragmented structure to it that won't be for everyone. There's a strong focus on stories within stories, weaving a folkloric feel through the book. Readers find their horizons expanding alongside Animas, and the joy of knowledge and history that ae feel parallels your own. Some tales are told in epistolary form, some in verse, all are mesmerising and poignant.

There are four short stories woven into In The Watchful City. All of these are Asian-centric but vary massively in content and tone. My two favourites were This Form I Hold Now, which features a fantasy sport and a trans girl character who binds her feet. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of foot binding being a gender euphoric process for this character. Foot binding is so often viewed through a very negative lens, so this was a piercing subversion of that trope. The other story I loved was As Dark As Hunger which features a fisher who finds a mermaid that looks exactly like her and is strongly linked to her past. The stories in In The Watchful City are both dark and hopeful - tackling themes of grief, joy, freedom, responsibility, gender, agency, and love. There is a fantastic amount of depth to this book; you could spend hours dissecting it and still stumble across more brilliant realisations. I am astounded by how much is packed into the pages. 

In The Watchful City has fantastic, intricate worldbuilding borne from the use of these short stories. For a novella, the world feels so vibrant, rich, and full of life and history. You get impressions of fraught city relations, lush settings, intricate cultural traditions and differences. It's a sparkling marvel of writing. 

I would highly recommend this book - with its thoughtful, poignant tackling of difficult topics and the undercurrent of self-acceptance and joy - it touched my heart in ways I could never have expected.
Was this review helpful?
I would like to thank Tordotcom and Netgalley for the review copy. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

A queer Asian-centric adult sci-fi/fantasy novella, In The Watchful City is immensely original and thought-provoking. It was such a breathtaking reading experience as it explored grief, identity, and possibilities.

The story followed Anima (æ/ær/ær), a non-binary human who was tasked to watch over Ora’s citizen through the Gleaming. Change happened when a mysterious visitor carrying a cabinet filled with objects from different people around the world entered the city. Anima began to wonder and ask questions to herself as æ listened to the stories behind the each memento.

Plotwise, I liked how layered and somewhat eccentric the story was. It had stories within stories which were heavily blended with culture, history, heritage, and norms. I liked how the stories were anchored by an object as it gave the feel of a folklore way of storytelling. Moreover, the mix the past and the futuristic elements enthralled me more. These bits of stories were like puzzle pieces, as they had their own shapes and colors. They took readers to different lives, experiences, and time. It was only at the end when everything clicked into place that readers would understand them fully.

The characters were very interesting and I loved the use of the neopronouns. I found the character interactions compelling and I felt connected to them even for such a short time. On the other hand, S. Qiouyi Lu definitely had a knack for creating such beautiful, poetic narrative. The words flowed smoothly and could be easily devoured.

Overall, if you’re looking for a unique read, you should pick this novella. In The Watchful City is the kind of story which one can only truly grasp its beauty by experiencing it themselves.

4/5 stars!

CW: suicide, self-harm, family abandonment, and feet binding
Was this review helpful?
Anima is a node connected to The Gleaming--an interconnected network that allows ær to protect the city of Ora, a city-state in exile from Skyland, a floating city above. Æ soon meets Vessel, who carries a box called a qíjìtáng that holds simple objects that hold memories. Vessel is collecting these memories until ser box is full in order to get a new chance at life. Through these simple objects, we follow Anima through a series of stories from other people's lives.

Do you ever read a story that is perfectly fit for the mood you're in? Do you ever read a story that feels like it's for you, and you alone? That's how I felt reading In the Watchful City. I feel like Anima--in stasis, waiting for something to happen, instead of working on myself. Waiting for someone to help instead of helping myself.

This book won't be for everyone, and that's okay. It will hit its intended target.

Thank you to Net Galley, Tordotcom, and S. Qiouyi Lu for the chance to read this advanced review copy. In the Watchful City releases on August 31st.

CW: murder, graphic suicide, grief, self-mutilation
Was this review helpful?
This book is intense and it's beautiful. It's a story about so many things, metaphorical and real. It's about the space between death and life and birth and life, it's a story about the body and soul (vessel and anima) coming together to become alive, and it's a story about the restrictions governments put on the people for freedom, for safety, for their own purposes, nefarious and altruistic both in the bureaucratic way of it.

It's a story about someone whose purpose is to watch the city and help out its citizens being visited by a psychopomp to force aer to witness other people's stories until ae has to switch from observing to participating. It's a story about stories and how witnessing other people's grief, pain, loss, hope gives us more personhood than keeping ourselves separated from it.

It took me nearly a month to get through this novella because it's full of so many intense and painful stories inside the frame narrative that I needed to take a break after each one to process it. It's not an easy read, but it's a great one. Fantastic sci-fi, very queer, relentlessly hopeful in the midst of pervasive pain. Life will hurt, but you must actually *live* it. Really good stuff.
Was this review helpful?
I don't generally like to compare books, but In the Watchful City's setup reminded me a bit of  The Singing Hills Cycle  by Nghi Vo. Mostly, in the way that several stories were told within the main story, which I found wonderful. And I adored the concept behind the stories, which was that each object that the visitor possessed contained a story from its former owner.

The city itself is pretty interesting, though I won't pretend to have been completely able to wrap my head around its concept- that, however, could certainly be on me. Anima works as a guard of sorts, ensuring the safety for all citizens within. So when the visitor enters, it's ær job to vet them, basically. I loved the way each story was told, and how much of an impact they clearly had on Anima. Basically, we get to read several stories about life, while watching Anima apply these stories to ær life. It's pretty great, really, to not only experience the stories as a reader, but through the eyes of someone else, too.

Bottom Line: The novella (both the main story of Anima, and the stories the visitor tells) is rich in both diversity and heart, and this is certainly one not to miss.
Was this review helpful?
In the Watchful City is unlike anything I've ever read. Taking this idea of objects which tell stories and running with it, Qiouyi Lu delivers a thoughtful story about purpose.  Pushing boundaries of what you might expect, In The Watchful City is like a kalediscope of stories within stories. Lives lived outside the fringes of what we know and holding secrets. It's a testament for stories to reveal truths about ourselves. Even those that seem so far removed from our own, that end up whispering to the voices within us.
Was this review helpful?
As soon as I read the description for this book I just knew I had to request it, though I had very little idea what to expect going in I was quickly swept away into a story within a story. In the Watchful City is a genre bending novel about life, grief and what it means to live, and for a Novella it sure packs on hell of a punch.

This is a really hard book to give a synopsis for, not just because of spoilers, but more because nothing I say will ever really live up to the actual story. Anima chose to become node, an extrasensory human hidden away in the inner sanctum and tasked with keeping the peace of Ora. But when a stranger appears with a chest full of mysterious objects, all with a story attached, Anima starts to question ærself and this city that she works for, and before long æ realises æ haven't really been living at all. 

Anima was just the perfect POV to read this story from. After an event in ær life æ  gave themselves to become a node, a person who cannot leave the inner sanctum except through the gleaming, a process that allows ær to inhabit the bodies of animals to carry out tasks for the city of Ora. æ have lived a relatively sheltered life, until the moment a stranger arrives, and then æ realises that there is more out there. Though ær character the author explores grief, power and oppression in a way I have never seen done before. 

Though the main story does follow Anima and ær story, some of my favourite parts were the disjointed and fractured story's told to ær by the stranger. The author uses these to skilfully build their world without us ever leaving the city of Ora. They give us not only an insight into the current political climate, but also historical context as well as awareness of other cultures magic system and include Asian mythology and folklore to create a sweeping tale about what it actually means to live. 

If there was one word I could use to describe this book it would be unique, everything from the world, the magic system and the inclusion of non-binary characters were just so far from books I have read before that I found myself wanting to devour every piece of information. It's not a light and easy read by any means, the story deals with multiple dark themes such as suicide and grief, but told through Amina's lens means we get to see them from a previously unseen viewpoint. 

This review might seem a little disjointed, and for that I apologise, but this is just a book that I struggle to explain. It wont be for everyone, the use of stories within stories and the disjointed nature of them might put some people off, but I can safely say that it will make my favourite reads of the year and I will be eagerly anticipating the authors next works.
Was this review helpful?
Where to begin…. 

I felt stupid after reading this book. To be frank, I have no idea what this story was about. Did I enjoy the read WHILE I was reading it? Weirdly, yes. Could I tell you anything about the plot? Nope 🤷🏽‍♀️ 

I don’t even know WHO to recommend this book to. I literally have nothing… 2.5 rounded up to 3 stars.
Was this review helpful?
The city of Ora is a place of beauty grown from unbearable trauma. Its tangles of vines, structurally integral trees, and streets named for flowers and painted with their namesake floral motifs to visually distinguish them from one another both melt into and clash against the equally integral constant surveillance its citizens live under. The lives of the people of Ora are guided, guarded, and in many ways imprisoned by the body-hopping “nodes”—once-ordinary people who have been physiologically altered in order to interface with the city’s energy and information network—who observe everything that happens in the city. This is a beautiful and terrible book, delicate and intricate in its inventive biopunk storytelling, heavy and hard-hitting in its lingering impact. 

In the Watchful City shows, through its structure of nested stories, how endless are the ways in which individuals and societies react to trauma and the aftermath of terrible events. Its queerness—as integral to its narrative as the trees and nodes are to the titular city—and its Chinese and Asian-diaspora cultural influences resist capitulating to the expectations of straight, Western readings, resulting in a narrative that does not feel much like anything I’ve read before. 

The complexity of this novella is such that I doubt most readers—certainly not myself—are likely to absorb everything it has to offer in a single reading. Luckily, the brief novella format makes multiple readings easy, and S. Qiouyi Lu’s sensuous, poetic prose is absorbing enough to get lost in even after one knows how all the stories end. In the Watchful City is not only easy but rewarding to read more than once, and I think that readers who do so will continue to find new facets to this well-polished gem of a book.

I would recommend this novella to readers in search of innovative speculative work that will make them both think and feel (and I would also recommend that potential readers pay close attention to the author’s content warnings). 

I received a free digital advance copy of this book from Tordotcom Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for my review.
Was this review helpful?
In the watchful city is a brilliant bio-cyberpunk novella which is unapologetically Asian and queer.

-It follows Anima who is tasked with gatekeeping the city of Ora. When aer meets a mysterious figure who invites aer to learn about the objects in ser's possession, Anima's world gets turned upside down.
-I loved how layered this novella was, it had stories within stories which though were a bit confusing, made the story that much more interesting.
-It's beautifully queer with many characters using neopronouns, so the reading experience was like none other.
-I enjoyed the author's take on Asian culture and myths and how aer managed to interweave them with the story.
-Overall, it was a fun read and I highly recommend it!

Content warnings: On-page suicide, mention of a suicide attempt, self-harm, body mutilations.

I received an arc from tor books via netgalley in exchange for an honest review. this did not impact my review in any way.
Was this review helpful?
S. Qiouyi Lu's "In the Watchful City" is a box of stories, only the box has a story engraved into it as well.

To put it more directly, the novella has two levels. One is a frame narrative wherein Anima, a body-hopping guardian, meets Vessel, a mysterious being who can tell stories about specific objects... stories which we soon come to enjoy as well. The frame narrative and nested stories alternate, until finally we get some satisfying resolution to the whole.

Each of the short stories presented fantastic worldbuilding and a really poignant core, without seeming repetitive. I think that, personally, I preferred the main storyline with Anime and Vessel. In a more perfect world, we could have had a longer novel, but this is the length we have and it's more than I could have asked for.

Recommended if you like a mix of long- and short-form fiction, worldbuilding with a cyber flair, and maybe a slightly melancholy read for this late summer period.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for giving me an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Was this review helpful?
I received a free eARC from the author/publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

[This review will be posted on my blog on 27 August 2021}

It has taken me weeks to write this review because every time I've tried, the words don't seem to do it justice. I feel the publication deadline looming though, so I'll do my best. 

In the Watchful City is a novella that defies easy categorisation. Straddling the line between science fiction and fantasy, it has elements of mystery, adventure, competitive sport, and romance. It achieves this through its unique narrative structure, similar to that of 1001 Nights, and Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. 

The base story revolves around Anima, an extrasensory human who connects to the bio-cyberpunk city of Ora through a complex network called the Gleaming, and protects its citizens. Ae takes pride in aer job, but doesn't realise something is missing until a mysterious stranger, known as Vessel, appears in aer quarters with a qíjìtáng, a kind of cabinet of curiosities. The stranger encourages Anima to choose objects from the cabinet and listen to their stories in exchange for Anima's own story. What follows is four gripping tales told to Anima over the course of a few days. 

"A Death Made Manifold" starts with a marionette. It's an Asian-inspired Western about a man on a quest to defy death itself. Despite the danger of his journey, he is compelled to continue by the weight of guilt and the buoyancy of hope.
"The Sky and Everything Under" is told in epistolary form, weaving a tale of love, monarchy and revolution. 
"The Form I Hold Now" was a surprise for me. It's about a transwoman competing in the competitive sport of skycups (which is like Diablo). As a child, she chose to bind her feet like her mother and grandmother before her as an expression of acceptable cultural womanhood. 
In "As Dark as Hunger." Anima hears the story behind a seemingly simple fish scale. What follows is the tale of a woman who finds a rare mermaid, and has to decide what action she will take. The re-appearance of her ex-lover, who is searching for mermaids to sell as a delicacy complicates her choice. 
Finally, interspersed between these four stories is Anima's own backstory, told in verse. 

Each story is fascinating and unique, and it allows the author to explore a lot of seperate, yet intertwined themes, including diaspora, gender, imperialism, power, loss and, ultimately, transformation. 

I was completely blown away by this novella. The writing is beautiful, and the pacing is perfect. It's interesting and compelling, and makes you want to go back for more. I loved it, and I cannot recommend it enough. I think fans of Yoon Ha Lee's Conservation of Shadows would enjoy this novella, as well as fans of sci-fi, fantasy, and Asian-inspired fiction.
Was this review helpful?
In the Watchful City is a kaleidoscopic vision of life and death, diaspora and borders, identity and transformation. It's a mosaic of what it means to know and to be known, an archive of lives told in a range of storytelling styles and narrative forms. Distinctly reminiscent of Italo Calvino, this is a beautiful, haunting, and fascinating book, short but crammed full of ideas and mesmerizing prose. Once again, Tor's novellas knock it out of the park, and if this is S. Qiouyi Lu's debut, I can't wait to read whatever æ writes next.

CW: Suicide, self-harm, body mutilation 

Thank you to NetGalley and Tor.com for the advance review copy!
Was this review helpful?