Cover Image: In the Watchful City

In the Watchful City

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Member Reviews

Heres’ the summary from the publisher, because it does a much better job than I possibly could.

“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?”

Overall, this one is a super cool cool, dystopian book about someone who can take over the body of various creatures for surveillance in “the city,” and doesn’t contemplate ær life until they meet a traveler who collects stories of outside the City’s walls.

I loved the stories, the characters, and the pronouns are super cool. Winwinwin. I do love a good SFF, and I really enjoyed seeing Anima develop and grow through the stories ær gets to experience. Stories shape us. They make us empathetic and as a result, better people. Amina spends most of ær time inside animals, tracking people for whatever reason, but it’s through the very human stories that ær’s soul grows and æ become a fuller person.
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Part novella and part anthology, “In the Watchful City” is a series of glimpses into the world of the City of Ora and its history through the eyes of one of its guardians, Anima, who lives interconnected to the magical/technological web in order to watch over the other citizens. 

It takes some time to settle into the City of Ora, to let go of the feeling of needing to fully understand Anima and the ins and outs of this strange science fiction city and just go with the flow. Ora and its abilities are really just a plot device for the other stories to take place and for its characters to find their way. Much of the world is left unexplained and can sometimes be confusing in a way that is unnecessarily distracting from the true focus of the story, which are the stories within the larger context and the characters’ relationships. But once the anthology aspect of the book kicks in during the second half, the story begins to find its flow and follows a more familiar structure that is easier to follow and sink into. 

However, by exploring so many different pieces in such a short period of time, this book felt too much like a longer piece that was condensed too much. There wasn’t enough time to really get to know the main characters, and by the time the book seemed to have found its ebb and flow, it was over. If this novella were to be expanded into a fully-fledged anthology, with more stories and room for the narrative that surrounds them, it would be much stronger and more engaging.

I rated “In the Watchful City” 3.5 out of 4.

Thank you to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and Netgalley for an early copy in exchange for an honest review!
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I recommend this one. It's a good book and everyone should read. Of course I would love to have this book in my bookstore.
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Ethereal and beautifully-written speculative fiction. 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 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. Overall a quick read but one that I loved to savour!
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I went into this thinking I'd like a literary SFF story, with Asian-inspired queer narratives. 

The story, sadly, didn't make a lot of sense to me from the start. The MC, who can possess any animal within the city limits, tries to apprehend a suspect by possessing the body of a raccoon - why a raccoon? Was this meant as comic relief? Okay, it was just the start, it'll get better, I'm sure. At least that's what I told myself. 

Only to be confused by the three different gender neutral/non-binary pronouns used. They weren't explained in any way, they were just there. And for the reader's ease, there was only one representative of each of these pronouns in the story. Hence I still don't know what distinguishes "æ/ær" from "se/ser" and "e/em" - and especially, what distinguishes these three from binary pronouns. 

In a meandering way the plot made sense in the end, but the way to that sense wasn't very cohesive. This lack of cohesion made following the plot very hard. 

Summing up, the story does what it says on the tin: it's exploring "borders, power, diaspora, and transformation in an Asian-inspired mosaic novella."

TW: mutilations, death, self-harm, suicide, violence.
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This is one of those books with a very interesting premise, where unfortunately the way how the narrative was built didn't work for me at all. 

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for giving me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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IN THE WATCHFUL CITY takes readers to Ora, a city-state in exile which uses a complex living network called Gleaming that protect the city from harm. Anima is an extrasensory human with the ability to body hop and æ is tasked with monitoring the city and its citizens. One day a mysterious outsider - Vessel - enters the city with qíjìtáng, a cabinet with items which each one has a story attached.

Amniotic bath; sensation; digital technology, non-binary bio-cyberpunk... this Asian-inspired novella is an unusual read. When Anima assumes animal forms and takes control over its perceptions and movements, the story envelopes us in an ethereal atmosphere. This novella consists of fragmented stories that will challenge readers as Lu ambitiously explores themes of oppression, identity, mental health, power and grief. Through Anima's interaction with Vessel, Anima starts doubting her role and begins to see the world beyond the city - ær interaction has a pinch of mystery and kept me reading to find out what will come next.

I particularly loved that Lu brings Chinese terms such as Bǐyìniǎo (比翼鳥) as well as new perspectives of Asian culture/history. This is a story that you don't hold onto each word, but rather let yourself dive into stories within stories blindly. IN A WATCHFUL CITY is a book that allows a full meditation on the meaning of life. It is a satisfying read with complex structure that I wish it could be longer.
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(3.5/5) 'In The Watchful City' was really unlike anything I've ever read before. Lu has such a vivid style of writing and it was very immersive, dramatic with lovely metaphors and similes. Admittedly though, I sometimes did get a bit lost in the atmosphere of it all and struggled to follow what was actually happening.

The short stories are all incredibly intriguing - I think the ones told by Anima aerself are in verse? - and rather more compelling than the external framing story of Anima, Vessel and the city of Ora. Standout stories were Anima's backstory (from which the above quote was taken), the fish-scale story and the one told in letters and court documents. This epistolary one was particularly cool and mysterious, revealing just enough but still keeping lots tantalisingly shrouded. The first story was really good too! I also found the subversive story of a trans girl choosing to get her feet bound really interesting, with its emphasis on agency. I think it's also noteworthy that the society she's in is matriarchal (if I remember correctly).

I do feel like I wanted a bit more on Ora - based on the blurb I think I had the impression that there was some dystopian, authoritarian power that Anima might have to fight. I also found the ending slightly confusing and anti-climactic (perhaps partially because of that blurb-inspired preconception?). There was one plot-integral action at the very end that completely bewildered me, so I guess I probably missed something... The world Lu has built is so rich and you can tell there's so much more to it than what we see in this novella. I recommend having a look at aer website, especially if you enjoy seeing concept art and behind the scenes work! 

A highly original, powerfully written and thought-provoking debut.
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This is exactly the sort of odd, sci-fi novella that you expect and want it to be. Strange characters and a quirky world fit really well with the stories being told. It might take some adjusting to with the language and the oddness but truly, isn't that what you want when you read a sci-fi like this? To feel like you're transported to a world totally unlike our own? I enjoyed reading, was super intrigued by the world building, and will look for more by the author!
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This was an astounding and poetic novella that was at times challenging, but in the best way. The stories contained within it were deep and moving and hinted at a broad and vibrant world beyond the snapshot we were given.
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Thanks to the author, Tordotcom and Netgallery for the eARC copy in exchange for an honest review.

I love a weird novella. This little book is an exploration of a world through the main character's encounter with a mysterious traveller with a cabinet of curious memories. This story goes mostly between Anima and the memories. Anima is part of an organically-crafted hive mind. Weird novella = hard to describe. Exactly as it should be.

I was fascinated by this short glimpse of a strange world very unlike our own but full of very human experiences and pain. There's a lot packed in and I was enchanted the whole way through. The mood is dark and introspective, but also curious and alive.

Well worth the very small amount of time it'll take you to read it. 

I am looking forward to enjoying other books by this author and may very well re-read this in the future. I'd like another walk through the journey.
Has LGBTQIA+ rep. TW for suicide
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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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