Cover Image: In the Watchful City

In the Watchful City

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Member Reviews

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 for the advance review copy!
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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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