Cover Image: In the Watchful City

In the Watchful City

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Member Reviews

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but it’s a hard one to describe. The short version: this feels like This is How You Lose the Time War x Arabian Nights. This story is set in the city of Ora where we follow Anima, who can connect to the Gleaming and watch over all of the city and its citizens (so maybe add a dash of the movie Minority Report to my earlier description). When a visitor arrives with a cabinet full of objects and stories from outside the city, a whole new world is opened up to both Anima and the reader. The writing was vivid and beautiful, and I was completely entranced by Anima’s story and the short stories of the cabinet’s objects.

“The Gleaming is a sea in the mind; the Gleaming is a collective dream; the Gleaming is the space within, bigger than aer body could ever contain.”

This book is abstract at times, as when Anima enters the Gleaming æ almost reaches a state of omnipresence, but it feels grounded by the very human stories interspersed throughout. I love reading stories within a story, and I would have read individual novellas based on each story, but I really loved how they gave the reader a greater sense of the world of this book. It’s a world that blends futuristic sci-fi elements with mythology and fantasy, and the possibilities feel almost endless but it’s no utopia - there is pain and turmoil in this world - and altogether it drives home that feeling of how immense and complex life can be.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with this free eARC in exchange for an honest review!
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This was a wonderful novella. I loved the different themes and mythologies this explored. I wish that there had been a little more background to the world itself. I was a little confused a few different parts, it just felt like the world that Anima was in could have been better fleshed out. I love the inclusion of queer stories told through sci-fi and fantasy. I could have done with probably a thousand more stories tied to the items in the box, I loved that storytelling device. I'm excited to see what else this author has to offer in the future.
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I am completely here for this very, very odd little book on the power of storytelling. Anima serves the city, loves it, cares for it, is literally attached to it. But that's only one of the stories that is happening, even if it is the framing narrative. This is really about the power stories have to inspire and connect us, and how powerful stories can be, connecting people who have almost nothing else in common. Is it weird? Oh, absolutely. But it is good weird. Embrace the fact that Lu gives us three sets of gender-neutral pronouns as the book opens, which makes it way easier to keep track of a case scene with three gender-neutral individuals. This is the type of book that takes you along for the ride, that's the point, that's the experience. The plotting is fully secondary to the adventure as a reader.
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Although this is a novella, it took me weeks to read. While I did enjoy the writing, I found it very difficult to fall into the main storyline. Ultimately, I enjoyed the stories told within the story the most. This is where the novella really shines. They are heartfelt and beautiful.
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In the Watchful City takes us on a trip, pushing the walls of science fiction and storytelling, that place between linear stories and surreal imaginations. S. Qiouyi Lu’s writing is boundary-shattering, completely sparkling with new experiences. An experience like no other.

A story that weaves in and out of the story, and its ability to bend and stretch our minds, we get to see the significance of memory through objects and its connections to people. It’s bits and pieces of stories within a much larger story. It’s like shattered stories, and we watch them being glued together to make itself known and understood in the grander scheme of things. 

Anima is a non-binary human with non-human abilities who watches over Ora’s citizens. But when a visitor comes, ær brought into a world of storytelling, all traumas and hopes. With each object, there is an entire story and person behind it. From scales, we see a story of mermaids and survival hood. We see stories of trans people hoping for a better life. A deck of tarot cards unfolds a story with such interesting and fascinating characters.

Everything feels like a blend of technology and folktales, bringing the myth into the rawness of real-life—anything from trans identities, generational trauma, corruption of power, environmentalism, and family. S. Qiouyi Lu has a gift for transforming the expected and surprising the reader into an unexpected tale.

I loved this beautifully weird story. I highly recommend reading this and many other TorDotCom novellas when you need something to get you out of a slump.
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I really liked the characters in this and the writing was good, but something about it didn't quite work in the end. So even though the rating shows 3 stars, it's more like a 3.5 stars
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Anima is a part of a security system that protects the city of Ora. They have no physical form and through the Gleaming can connect and control any animal form within the city as required for surveillance. The story starts off really confusing as it dies the really explain the reference of ae and aer until 30% into the book after the first story. And even then I’m still only guessing. Seems that Anima is ae’s name and aer generally refers to the body ae inhabits at the time... maybe?

The story itself is futuristic sci-fi fantasy revolving around Anima and their interaction with a new visitor to the city Vessel. Vessel share stories about different objects they carry around with them. I am super confused by the Anima’s story and the ending. All the stories are all really sad!! Whilst I was intrigued about what was going on I was very puzzled throughout. It’s definitely an complex read for a more contemplative reader.
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What a wonderfully strange and unexpected book! It's a mosaic novel that reminds at first of THE INVISIBLE MAN but then moves into stranger, queerer, more ambitious places than Bradbury ever could've dreamed. I would've read another twice as many stories in/about the world that Lu builds here.
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I mean WOW. This book was such a unique and powerful experience, particularly because of the rich world-building, but also because of so much more than that! The main storyline was engrossing, the main character Anima providing a unique perspective on aer distinct place in aer society. I really enjoyed the way this narrative took me through the lives and experiences of so many different people throughout this world. I'm a sucker for those little mini-stories within a larger narrative that give you a glimpse into another piece of the world (think of those interludes in Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series, or an episode in a TV show that gives the main cast a little time off-screen). Lu was able to provide such visceral empathic experiences throughout this book, and it is exactly what I love most about reading! I'm probably not doing a great job of describing this, but it's because the whole experience was so magical and unique and it TOUCHED me! In the Watchful City definitely goes onto my list of favorite books ever, and has now put S. Qiouyi Lu on my list of authors whose work I want to devour!
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If I had to describe In the Watchful City in a word, it would be ‘transcendent’. In the Watchful City is unlike anything I have read before; this novella pushes the boundaries of science-fiction/fantasy, highlighting that there are no limits or restraints in meaningful storytelling that interweaves themes of diaspora, power, gender, and transformation. The power of In the Watchful City is that it feels – and perhaps is – a story that feels so deeply and unapologetically personal.

In the Watchful City centers Anima, an extrasensory yet cloistered non-binary human tasked with watching over the bio-cyberpunk city Ora’s citizens by immersing aerself into the complex network called the Gleaming. When a mysterious visitor named Vessel enters the city and shares a collection of items and the rich stories that come with each item, Anima’s world and vision expands beyond the boundaries of Ora – and with it, calling aer purpose into question.

Anima’s story is central to the narrative, but there are also four queer, Asian-influenced short stories woven into the fabric of the story. The short story A Death Made Manifold is an Asian-influenced Western about a man with a mysterious quest that will defy death; This Form I Hold Now is a story about a trans girl who binds her feet and competes in skycup, a diabolo-inspired competitive sport; The Sky and Everything Under told in epistolary form, is a queer story about monarchy, revolution, and tragedy; and finally, my favourite, As Dark as Hunger, a queer story about a fisher who finds a mermaid who is intrinsically tied to her past and heritage and is caught in a bind when her ex-lover reenters her life. And at the center, is Anima’s own story (and aer backstory is told in verse), set in a futurist bio-cyberpunk city and ties in themes of diaspora, loss, and ultimately possibility.

A central theme of In the Watchful City is how immense and rich life can be, and I loved that the novella explores the duality of limitation and freedom. Tasked with protecting its citizens, Anima can oscillate between different beings within Ora, able to borrow the bodies of animals and become part of the dream-like consciousness of the Gleaming, in which aer immerses aerself in. Despite the freedom of movement and embodiment that this affords, Anima is nonetheless confined within Ora. Yet, it is through the stories behind a fish scale, a skycup, a marionette, and a set of letters that aer feel their world expand. Reading this, I felt that this particular duality within In the Watchful City alluded to the confines and freedom of gender; that gender can be this wondrous yet restraining thing in which we express ourselves and yet is just one representation of who we are, or could be. 

A recurring theme across diaspora narratives is this sense of loss and pain, separated from sourcelands and disconnected from identity. Although loss and pain are undercurrent in the short stories within In the Watchful City, Lu subverts these themes and ultimately reclaims them, the stories told with deliberate and utmost agency. In the Watchful City feels like a defiant love letter to one self, and I felt like I connected with its self-love and self-acceptance. Ultimately, In the Watchful City is about the multitude of possibilities that life can behold, that our journeys are unimaginable, and rather than that be something wholly terrifying, because it partly is, it can be freeing and liberating. 

In the Watchful City is truly magnificent novella, powerful and brilliant in its storytelling and wondrous in its imagination. Lu is a speculative fiction writer of the future, and I cannot wait to see how else I will be challenged, provoked, and moved in aer future work. In the Watchful City is Lu’s first full-length debut, and if In the Watchful City is just one example of aer work and a piece of what aer work beholds, then I am incredibly excited to read whatever aer writes in the future.
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I like the idea of this novella better than the actual product. The writing was beautiful but incredibly disorienting. We're thrown into this world with little to no context and all you hear is someone "borrowing" the body of a random animal. I wish there had been an inclusion in the author's note that there would be non-conventional pronouns (he/she/them). Going in not knowing that I though the main character (Anima) and the pronouns Ær were two different characters. That criticism is probably just my own brain going full stupid, but I'd just appreciate a warning. I found the short stories within the novella way more interesting than the main story. I would love a full story of the mermaid one. My main issue is the no context. If I didn't know better I'd assume this was a novella between two books in a series. If you're into whimsical writing in a fascinating scifi world, I would say try this out.
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I won’t share this with my middle schoolers but this was a delightfully strange and intriguing novella. The pronouns were hard to wrap my head around but it worked. I also loved the stories within the story.
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This... is a really hard book to write a review on. 

I could just say it's amazing, but that doesn't give you much sense of, well, anything. 

I could just say it's a book you have to experience to appreciate but... that's so deeply a cop-out I can't even. 

So. Let's try this. 

Characters? Varied and intriguing and even though you're with most of them for such a short period of time, I felt emotionally connected to pretty much all of them. I'm pretty stony-hearted so that's saying a lot. Gender diverse (two, I think, non-standard pronouns), very little physical description so imagine what you like of skin colour etc (aspects of Chinese-based world-building like references to foot binding had some impact on my imagination). 

World-building? One of those instances where there are so many little moments where something is mentioned and I'm like "wait WAIT what? You need to explain that more!" and the author just ignores me (unsurprisingly) and although I don't fully understand some idea (which might be my lack of cultural context or it might be deliberate), it turns out actually I don't need those details to fully experience the world and the story. Having said that, by the end of the story I had a lot of tantalising detail that gave me a very full sense of the world - far more full than might be expected from a fairly short story, and especially one that's not entirely linear. 

Plot? There's one main one - Anima lives in Ora, and works basically as part of a surveillance system, designed to keep citizens safe. Anima meets someone very unexpected, as well as experiencing tragedy. But along with that, there are additional stories, told to Anima via representative objects... and I loved Anima but maybe I loved the stories more? Some involve great loss and some involve victory and they all help to develop a sense of the world in which all of this is taking place. 

It's SF and it's fantasy. The writing is gorgeous. It's utterly absorbing. It's going on my list of things to nominate for awards next year.
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I honestly don’t know how to rate this. I…enjoyed it? I think? I’m also extremely confused with what I just read but it was good.

In this novella, we follow Anima, who lives as a semi-omipotent Node of the city-state of Ora. Ora, modeled I believe after Singapore, governs through The Gleaming, a biocyberpunk shared consciousness tied between all citizens that Anima helps monitor and interfere on the city’s behalf when necessary. Æ are greeted one day with a traveler who slowly tells ær stories from a case se travel with, Arabian Nights style. The book is almost like a short story anthology in some ways, telling stories within stories and Anima giving reactions between each tale. In between we get glimpses of Anima’s life as a Node, the people and emotions ær encounters. There are explorations of grief and suicide, love and passion, and a fascinating take of body dysmorphia involving very cosmic metaphors.

In the Watchful City is written with a very…experimental structure, with everything from a standard short story to verse to a collection of legal documents. I suppose I enjoyed it, but deeper literary exploration is really not my forte so I can only provide a surface reaction. While I was confused by Anima’s overall arch, I did enjoy the individual stories-within-the-story (the legal documents one being my favorite) and the creativity of the worldbuilding and prose was fun to experience. Overall, I rate this book a 4/5.

Review to be posted on my blog: 20 August 2021
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This novella seemed daunting at first glance. It is filled with stories upon stories upon stories. However it was not daunting but rather each story worked to fill in gaps that enriched my understanding of the previous stories. It uses neopronouns in a very interesting way and doesn't shy away from sensitive topics, though those topics are handled with care. At its core it was a hopeful story that I'm still trying to properly process. More to come closer to release.
Was this review helpful? has been killing it with their novellas recently and this one is no different. S. Qioyui Lu gives us a biocyberpunk dreamscape setting with unique characters and stories that are tinged with just the right amount of darkness. And while I found this to take a little time to get into, (I need more practice with neopronouns) once I really got into it I couldn't stop thinking about this novella. The stories that take place in this supposed utopia center around family, identity, choice, love, life, and trauma, but are written in a way that makes them feel like a dream even when unveiling various horrors of human nature.

This story is rich and complex. It's not going to be for everyone not only because of the various content warnings (please see them listed below) that need to go along with it, but also because it's not a straightforward story. Because Anima's story is woven in with the stories from the cabinet, the characters alternate regularly. So, if you aren't a fan of multiple POVs or stories within stories, this may not be for you. However, I enjoyed how these stories wove together to address the different themes that the author wanted to include.

Overall, I would recommend it for readers looking for an Asian biocyberpunk setting, with LGBTQ+ representation and themes that transcend time and space. 

CWs: On page suicide, Drowning, Mentioned attempted suicide, Violence, Body Mutilation, Blood, Family Abandonment, Foot Binding, Riot, Off page Execution, and I'm sure that I missed something.

Thank you to and Netgalley for providing me with an e-ARC of this novella, however, all thoughts and opinions are my own.
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I requested this one because it might be a 2021 title I would like to review on my Youtube Channel. However, after reading the first several chapters I have determined that this book is not my tastes. So I decided to DNF this one rather than push myself to finish it only to give it a poor review.
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"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?"

This "biocyberpunk" (as described by the author) novella contains much more in 208 pages than I was expecting. We follow Anima, a node within The Gleaming who helps to keep the peace of aer world by having access to watch all the inhabitants and intervene to keep the harmony of this post-traumatic community when necessary. When a mysterious visitor, Vessel, appears, Anima is suddenly shown a world without borders and life full of possibilities even with its pain. 

This novella is many stories within stories. This along with it's repetition (a visitor showing up multiple times to tell a story) gives it the feel of a fairytale or some kind of folklore which always draws me in. As each story within the story unfolds, we are given a clearer picture of this world that Anima inhabits, supposedly a utopia in ways, and the lives of those throughout it as well as aer. The stories consider life, trauma, choice, identity, love, family, and heritage in ways that feel completely new and as familiar as any myth that's been told over and over again. The mix of futuristic and archaic imagery felt fresh and engaging rather than confusing. 

I loved the use of neopronouns (ae, se, e) throughout the story and the mix of how the story was told with different narration as well as how words were laid out on the page. 

CONTENT WARNINGS: completed suicide fully on page, attempted suicide mentioned, body mutilation, family abandonment. Take caution and care when reading if this kind of content will harm you. 

Thank you to NetGalley and MacMillan - Tor/Forge for my ARC in exchange for an honest review!
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Such a deep and raw sci-fi full of feelings and introspection. For a novella this book didn't lack information and details both of the characters and the stories told by the character called the Vessel.
I loved the narration and the use of neopronouns. After a couple minutes to get your brain sync with names and everything, the story proceeded way darker than I thought when I started it.
The stories narrated by Vessel were gradually harder and the life Anima faced in the Hub and while humping inside animals wasn't an easy one and it broke my heart.

The story was complex and may not be for everyone, but it's definitely a novella I won't be forgetting anytime soon.
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Very thin characterisation, which was disappointing. While the concept was intriguing, it needed more grounding in the framing narrative to keep my attention and engagement. Otherwise, it should simply have been a collection of short stories.
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