Cover Image: In the Watchful City

In the Watchful City

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Member Reviews

It’s prettily written.  This book definitely falls into the more literary side of the fantasy genre.  It’s a drifting little dream of a story.  Just novella length and it’s a character with the ability to inhabit bodies of animals in their city to watch over it.  It has a second character telling them a string of short stories about the lives of others through small trinkets  that they carry. It was interesting but it definitely doesn’t have a standard  story structure.  It would be a good choice for a reader that wants something to make them think about life.
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This brilliant, Asian-inspired queer fantasy is reminiscent of the Matrix and Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest. "In The Watchful City" revolves around a non-binary human, Anima (ae/aer) who watches over the city Ora. When a stranger named Vessel appears and begins to share stories with aer, Anima's perception of the city shifts dramatically. The layered narratives, or stories-within-stories, are told in the style of Arabian Nights and Valente's The Orphan's Tales. They are complex, twisting tales, and their energy is both futuristic and ancient. Lu's writing is lyrical and this was a pleasure to read.
I love the author's incorporation of biotech, and the way they handled gender. TOR always releases the BEST novellas, and this is no exception.
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in the watchful city is an asian-centric adult fantasy novella told through fragmented stories in a world so lush it'll leave you breathless.

the story had me instantly entranced with its biocyberpunk feels; the world feels so vivid and the author's biotech-based take on cyberpunk definitely succeeded in gripping me in what was happening from the get-go. the novella got me even more interested when it appeared to be stories within stories that was rich with folklore and mythology and the exploration of complex themes in just about 200 pages.

it is so incredibly diverse and explores grief, power, oppression, and abuse. we delve deep within the story into the intersections of gender, heritage, culture and history. i loved reading about the political animosity between countries and the way the author managed to subvert a lot of different norms into something more unique and inclusive.

i've never read anything like this before and i was very pleasantly surprised as well as enamored by lu's ability to craft unique worlds with exceptional storytelling. definitely looking forward to read more from them!

content warning: completed on-page suicide, mention of a suicide attempt, self-harm, body mutilations, family abandonment.
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When first starting this novella, I wasn't really sure what to expect, despite having read the description and being intrigued. This is not written in the traditional sense and feels almost more like an anthology of short stories by the same author rather than one cohesive tale. 
While the entire plot did, eventually, make sense to me, the journey felt erratic and hard to follow. Realistically, this book can be summarized as "pretty words, no thoughts." There was so much prose that was beautiful, but the lack of cohesiveness for a plot made this not enjoyable for me.
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CW: suicide and self-harm

This one was bizarre and fascinating and full of small pieces of lives that experienced deep emotions. I love the idea of starting with a main character who sees everything in a city, whose sole purpose in life is to watch and enforce the laws of the city (no one comes in or out, lives are sacred but you can apply to commit government-approved suicide). So we see the city through the eyes of Anima, whose special relationship to the governing entity allows aer (neopronouns!!!) to inhabit the bodies of animals to travel the city as needed.

But the really interesting character is Vessel, whose job as a psychopomp is to collect objects (memories) from other people and share however many se (another neopronoun!!) needs to convince a new person to give a memory. The combination of these two characters, as well as the memories that pass like stories between them, is so compelling.

Perfect for fans of Nghi Vo's The Empress of Salt and Fortune / When Tiger Comes Down the Mountain, who want something that's a little more sci-fi with more stories in smaller pieces.
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The primary character, Anima, watches over the island city of Ora, and intervenes in situations when necessary, using a biologically-based technology to move between bodies around the city. 
A stranger, Vessel, shows up in the city with a box containing several objects. Anima and Vessel talk together several times, with Vessel relating the stories associated with the contained objects, leading Anima to re-evaluate aer’s views greatly about aerself.
The embedded stories take place elsewhere in this world, and weave in and out of the main narrative, and concern grief, a suicide, a sports competition, a treasonous government official and the hunting of an ocean creature. 
We also see Anima surveilling the inhabitants of Ora, and dealing with one particularly upsetting incident, and Anima discovering the cumulative toll each of the situations take on aer’s emotions and wellbeing.

This is a deeply challenging read. 
-I like the author’s biotech-based take on cyberpunk. 
-I love the use of objects to tell stories (having worked as a docent years ago) and was reminded of how Nghi Vo used a similar technique in “The Empress of Salt and Fortune”. 
-I love how the embedded stories are influenced by Asian myths, cultures, and history.

“The Watchful City” is unusual, viscerally-written, beautiful, and difficult to categorize. This was like nothing I’ve read before.

Thank you to Netgalley and the Publisher for this ARC in exchange for a review.
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I adored this novella that is about sentience, queerness, and things that watch us when we least expect it. Full of a great cast of characters, I cannot wait to see what Lu does next.
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I'm going with 4.5 stars rounded up. Tor selections are always top-notch for me, but this was such a delightful surprise. I have no idea how I'm going to explain this book to people to get them to buy in but I'm going to mention some of my favourite things about it: it's a quick, poignant read; it's super weird (big plus for me and lots of readers I know); it features stories within stories; it's queer; it leaves you wanting more when it comes to fleshing out the world which I know can be frustrating for some readers but I honestly love so much.

The story introduces us to Anima, who is part of a network that looks after humans in a kind of omniscient way? Ae can psyche-hop into other animals, and is like the top-tier of guardians of this society that ae lives in. But ae is also literally plugged into a thing called the Gleaming - ae has no life outside of aer job, aer responsibilities, ae doesn't even need to eat. Aer life is just moving right along, until Vessel shows up with a case of mementos, asks Anima for a memento, and when Anima falters, shares the stories of the other mementos in the case.

It's just so deliciously non-"traditionally" structured, and introduces some interesting conundrums about what the human condition. I can definitely see myself coming back to this regularly and taking away different things from it each time. Which is high praise for a book under 200 pages to pack such a punch. Can't wait to see what S. Qiuoyi Lu does next.

CW: suicide, consensual cutting, some violence, blood, mild sexual content
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In the Watchful City
by S. Qiouyi Lu

This is a very hard book to review. It's odd, schizophrenic, a mosaic of ideas, confusing to me a bit of the time, and boring a bit of the time. It was also strangely interesting.

The key figure is a being that can jump it's soul/essence/mind? to other animals and can use those creatures for it's bidding. It spies on the city to know what is going on. A guardian?

A stranger comes bringing a magical box. In the box are numerous objects. Each has a backstory. So this Guardian listens to many stories.

The guardian has stories too. One is of a completed suicide so a warning here.

I don't think I would have read it the first time now that I know what it is about. It was okay. Recommend? Probably not.

I do thank the publisher and NetGalley for letting me read the book. I normally love odd books.
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(Content warnings: grief, suicide, drowning, death, gore, blood, violence, foot-binding, moderate sexual content, imagery that may be triggering to self-harm survivors such as consensual cutting)

This is a short, poignant, Asian-centric mosaic of stories about life and grief that feels like it touches onto something eternal. The world which blurs the line between sci-fi and fantasy is evocative and absolutely breathtaking, and the worldbuilding is done really effectively without being overwhelming. The structure of the novella is really cool, I'm a sucker for stories within stories done well, and AH does this novella do it well. The choice to tell Anima's story through poetry was something really inventive that I absolutely adored. Also, the perfectly normalized use of various neopronouns made me v emotional 🥺🥺🥺

(Sidenote: I rate books based on my own enjoyment and Vibes, so the reason I've rated it 4 stars is bc I did find some of the things mentioned in the content warnings section that I wasn't quite prepared for a bit upsetting). 

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the ARC!
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in the watchful city is a beautiful asian centric sci-fi/fantasy (biocyberpunk as said by the author) queer novella that intricately weaves different stories with mythology and exploration of grief, pain and emotions.

this is unlike anything i've ever read, so layered and so touching. i loved its take on gender and queerness, especially the main character Amina's use of æ/ær pronouns as well as other neo pronouns throughout the book. the way of storytelling and hidden meanings is enjoyable, so is the subtle inclusion of politics and power. it gave me strong folklore-ish vibes as each story unfolded, and the Vessel, the visitor who told these stories to Anima, opened ær eyes to the possibilities of a different future.
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I don’t know how to rate this. 
I enjoyed the story, but wanted more. I feel like this would have done better as a novel and not a novella. 
It is a great quick read for sure. I’m afraid to really say much about it because I don’t want to provide spoilers. But if you like syfy, I’d definitely recommend!
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In the Watchful City, by S.Qiouyi Li, is a captivating novella with so many delightful things in one. It is an Asian-centric adult queer blending of science fiction and fantasy. While that sounds like a mouthful, it is absolutely worth the read.

Ora is a complex futuristic city. They deploy extrasensory humans to watch over the citizens – and to maintain the harmony they are so proud of. Anima is one of those humans, and æ takes pride in the job.
Perhaps that last bit should be phrased in past tense. Something is changing in Ora. A stranger visitor has arrived, and the lessons they carry will forever change Anima's mind and worldview.

"There is something that remains you no matter where you are when you are, what you are. So, I'll ask you one question: Who are you?"

Wow. In the Watchful City is such a powerful and evocative read. It's one of those books that takes you by the hand, leads you to a couch, and then forces you to stop and think about everything you just read and felt.

For that reason, I really do love In the Watchful City. Anima's character and the situation were absolutely fascinating, though, at times, it may have been hard to digest or process everything that was going on.

On that note, I should really mention that as stunning as this novella is, it is also a heavy read. There are a ton of trigger warnings to go with it, including sibling death, foot binding (on page), suicide (on page), assisted suicide (on page), body mutilation (consensual but still graphic), and abuse.

I think the thing I loved the most about In the Watchful City, other than the novella itself, that is, is that the author describes it as 'biocyberpunk.' It's such an eye-catching yet descriptive term for this novella.
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I'm a sucker for frame stories, and this DELIVERED. In the Watchful City's frame story centers around Anima, a steward who takes care of the World (Ora), a city-state watched by biomodified entities. Ae is visited by an outsider named Vessel, who offers stories in eventual exchange for a story and token of Anima's own. The sub-stories take place over centuries and involve everything from athletics to poetry to finally, my favorite of the bunch, the story of a river mermaid at the center of a toxic push-and-pull relationship. The language is stunning and the emotions stayed with me long after I was done. This drew heavily from Asian cultures and as mentioned in the author's notes, decolonization is a central theme. For fans of Catherynne Valente, Aliette de Bodard, and Arkady Martine.
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3.5 out of 5 stars

In the Watchful City is another novella where I think it would've benefited so much more from being a full length novel. The outside plot follows Anima, a human with special gifts whose job it is to watch over are society. Ae meets a stranger who shows aer a ton of stories about people from outside her city, people who she never knew could've existed. This book is a majority of these short stories, with only a few standing out. I loved the mermaid story and feel like that could've been its only full length novel on its own. I also found that a lot of the sci-fi and cyberpunk elements were mostly confusing. The writing style itself was nice, I just had a hard time understanding some of the plot devices. This was full of interesting things but I just feel like there wasn't enough time to really explore them all and we got thrown right into the middle of it and had to figure it all out on our own.
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I’m not sure I got what I expected with this novella, but then I’m also not sure what I expected. I certainly didn’t get that the point of the story was supposed to be the question asked at the end of the blurb. And none of that mattered, because once I got into the story I was hooked.

This is knd of a Scherezade meets a Collector and facilitates a rescue type of story. Or an escape. Or simply an opening of the eyes story. Or even, if you squint, opening the bars of the gilded cage and letting the bird out story. Or perhaps all of the above.

There are interesting political questions that lie behind, and under, and all around the story of Vessel telling stories to Anima about the artifacts collected in the cabinet that has been illegally smuggled into Ora, but there wasn’t quite enough of that part for this reader to hold onto.

Just enough to glimpse that the underlying story would be fascinating if we got it, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the stories, poems, vignettes and thought-pieces that Vessel relates to Anima.

But as much as I wondered about the world that produced this situation, that Anima is just one node in an ever-watchful neural network that observes and protects the city-state of Ora, what I loved were those little stories and the way that they opened Anima’s eyes to possibilities of other lives and other futures – not for the city but for Anima alone – if Anima is willing to cut Ærself off from the network that has sustained Ær whole life.

Escape Rating A-: As I said, I loved this one for the stories, but puzzled a bit – okay, a lot of bits – about the universe in which they are set. There’s a biopunk AND cyberpunk feel to the whole thing, as Anima is both an individual with individual thoughts and feelings AND a node on a city-wide network with the capacity for omnipresence if not any other deity-like powers.

The intrusion of the psychopomp Vessel both upsets and opens Anima’s closed world-view. Vessel is a smuggler, who is not supposed to be in Ora, and is not supposed to have been able to enter Ora without being caught.

For Anima, Vessel is both a puzzlement and a siren, luring Anima into viewing other lives and other worlds, allowing the person-who-is-a-node to see that there are other possible ways and places to live.

The individual stories range from heartbreakers to morality tales. (The story about the difference between raising the dead and resurrecting the dead is dark and heartbreaking and a gem all at the same time.) They are little jewels, revealing ever more facets to the universe of possibilities if only Anima is willing to reach out and grab them. And it’s only at the end that the reader realizes that opening Anima’s eyes was the point all along, and that THAT was the thread that linked all the stories. Pulling all of the “might have beens” into a thread of possibility for Anima – and for Vessel.
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3.5 stars

Some parts were slower than others, and I definitely didn't understand some of the worldbuilding. Nothing was poorly done or written, but I also read this at a time when I wasn't super in the mood for this format, so a lot of my issues are just a me thing and not anything to do with the book. 

That being said, it all come together in the end and ended up being really beautiful.
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This book is a really excellent and well-written science fiction fantasy that is absolutely transcendent. It's wonderfully layered and intriguing.
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As an extrasensory human, Anima can connect to Ora’s living network known as the Gleaming. Through the Gleaming, æ monitors Ora’s citizens and prevents crimes. Æ has dedicated æ whole life to this duty, believing the city’s wellbeing is worth æ selflessness. But then Vessel arrives in Ora with her qíjìtáng, a case full of curiosities gathered from people Vessel has met on her travels, each item with its own unique story. As Vessel reveals those stories, Anima questions whether æ life of servitude to Ora is worth all the experiences æ is missing. 
In the Watchful City is a story about the importance of experiences and the growth which comes from sharing them. As payment for hearing the tales, Anima must add æ own to the qíjìtáng. However, Anima is attached to the Gleaming through a node and æ experiences are limited to what æ has observed, not lived æself. Initially, Anima is uncomfortable at the deeply personal stories æ hears. They affect æ as æ interacts with Ora’s citizens until æ comes to rely on them to help æ find meaning in the world.
The present tense is used for the main narrative and the Asian inspired, feminist object-stories from the qíjìtáng. The tense choice brings an immediacy to the stories, making these object-based tales as current as Anima’s. The only shift from this style occurs when Anima tells æ story. Æ uses past tense in a non-prose format that is more suitable to æ surreal life immersed in the Gleaming. The uneven line length and brackets within brackets had a musical quality, making Anima’s personal tale stand out from the others.
As In the Watchful City is a novella, there is a lack of detail which is the trade-off for the reduced length. I found the shorter stories more engaging than the overarching narrative because these were sharp snapshots into one aspect of a person’s life. We get enough context to understand that moment, appreciating the decisions made. But I had too many questions about Ora and its relationship with the wider world to fully engage. An example occurs early on. Anima tracks a fugitive who escapes in a zeppelin and greets a Skylander with affection. The idea of a citizen of Ora with a Skylander horrifies Anima, but we don’t know what happened between the two civilisations to cause æ reaction. For me, this incident did not have the same impact as the beautiful, heart-breaking narrative about the mermaid. 
In the Watchful City explores what makes a fulfilling life. Is it our dedication to duty, work, or the experiences and decisions we make along the way? It is an ambitious work for its size. The object stories from the qíjìtáng give us a peek into the magic of another culture that is always a worthwhile endeavour.
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This slim volume took rather a lot of brain to read, so it was slow going. It was also slow as I became used to the unfamiliar pronouns -- ae, se, and e -- that are used throughout. Even as I struggled to comprehend it, though, I loved it.

The writing is gorgeous and inventive, with stories within stories weaving a tapestry of what it means to be human, to feel grief, to live.

Anima watches over aer city from within the Gleaming, borrowing the bodies of animals to make aer way around the city and protect it. Though she can float through the Gleaming and city at will, she cannot physically leave her room.

Vessel is a psychopomp who has a magical collection of artifacts, each with a story to tell.

Their interactions are beautiful to see, as Vessel slowly uses the stories of the artifacts to bring Anima back to an awareness of her humanity and what it means to live.

This is definitely going into my top 10 books of the year, and I will be recommending it highly.

*Thanks to NetGalley and MacMillan / Tor-Forge for providing an e-arc for review.
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