Cover Image: In the Watchful City

In the Watchful City

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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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DNF 25%

This book is fascinating! I am so intrigued! The world is so unique and the element of having stories within a story is one of my favorite things. But for me this is not working. I can definitely see myself coming back to this when I’m in the mood for unique, dense world, but right now I feel like I’m slogging rather than enjoying. Definitely recommend for folks who enjoy stories within a story and unique nature-based world. Like, the world reminds me of the tree in the swamp of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series in how it’s connected to everything and everyone.
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Trigger warning: Suicide. Anima is the once human, now bio AI tasked with watching our aer city. One of several dedicated protectors of the city, Anima begins to feel disengagement with aer life at the same time a mysterious stranger who collects stories arrives. Lyrical and futuristic, In The Watchful City is a series of linked stories that build into a symbolic death and rebirth. Unfortunately, the stories set outside the city are far more engaging than the stories within, leaving this reader unsatisfied. I count 4 suicides, all intimately described, though there are more. If that doesn't trouble you, you will likely enjoy this book more than I did.
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In the exiled city-state of Ora, Anima’s duty is to jump into different animal’s bodies in order to monitor the city for crime and keep its civilians safe. However, when an enigmatic figure named Vessel shows up with a cabinet full of curiosities—each with its own story—, Anima’s world begins to expand and æ begin to question ær purpose in life.

In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu is a mind-bending, genre-bending work of fiction. The blurb describes it as a “mosaic novella,” and it really is just that. Using a frame narrative, this book contains stories within a story as Vessel acts as a narrator in parts, explaining the history and meaning behind various objects in his collection.

Throughout the novella, the story interweaves sci-fi and fantasy, implementing some really cool biocyberpunk ideas. For instance, there is a substance called the Gleaming, which interconnects the consciousness of all life in the city in a sort of almost fungal-like network. Any living 2-noded creature is able to tap into this network to see through the eyes of another. However, it takes a special 8-noded being (such as Anima) to be able to fully connect and manipulate the body of another.

All in all, this is an esoteric, introspective sort of story that meaningfully explores the importance of home and memory. It may not be the easiest read for some, but it’s a worthwhile one if you’re in the mood for a bit of a high-concept, food-for-thought-type of book.
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The format reminds me of the format of a Black Mirror episode, jumping straight into the action, a little ominous, a little intriguing. Anima is able to travel within the Gleaming, hurtling aer soul from creature to creature. Acting as law enforcement, simply monitoring the city, whatever they need from aer. The city seems to be closed off from the rest of the world, with strict laws to control its citizens; but everything is provided. So why want to leave? There is no more to want than can be provided, until Anima learns that there is more out there, more to want. More pain and beauty than ae can ever comprehend. 

The language is very introspective and poetic, as Anima considers aer place in the world and what ae has experienced of it, how warped aer perspective is. There is more beyond the city of Ora than ae ever considered, more to aer own story. I also really liked the description of the Gleaming, how bodiless Anima was, yet how much more aer was able to feel within its grasp. The ability to jump between beings, no matter how big or small, or how sentient, was fascinating. Though Anima was in their bodies, aer didn’t become them or take on their instincts; when in the body of a dog, aer didn’t crave meat, merely using the body of the dog to get what aer wanted. 

In the Watchful City highlights both the futility of life and the beauty of it. The inevitability of death, of pain, and yet the wonderful abundance of joy that is possible. Though this is but a short novella, a beautiful world was created, one that I would love to read more of. Magic and wonder, different cultures, and some of the best, easiest, queer rep I’ve ever seen. I say easy to mean that no one is persecuted for being queer, whether it’s in terms of gender identity or sexuality. It’s just so easy to let people be who they want to be and to support them when they are who they say they are. Alternate pronouns are used so very easily. 

The city of Ora isn’t about keeping its people happy; it’s about keeping them safe and keeping them from knowing about the world outside the city. It gives the people everything they need and still it’s not enough. Having everything at your fingertips, including mental health professionals, isn’t always enough to fix everything. The world is so chaotic and unpredictable, people so chaotic and unpredictable. There is too much going on, too many variables, that people can’t be controlled and soothed into wanting nothing more than what they already have. Because the people in Ora are missing something big: they’re missing the entire rest of the world. The one they’re cut off from because it’s supposedly better. 

I have so many questions about this world and what the people look like and what sorts of people are possible and what creatures there are in this world. It’s this yearning for the well written world that makes me give this novella five stars. In so few words, it drew me in and painted a picture full of feeling and mystery and pain and love.
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3.5 stars! (out Aug 31st!!!)

**Thank you to NetGalley for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.**
#IntheWatchfulCity #NetGalley

+ nonbinary Asian-American author (they/them)
+ LGBT rep: nonbinary MCs (æ/ær and se/ser), m/m relationship, f/f relationship
+ cyber/steam-punk futuristic world (sci-fi & fantasy & dystopian blended together)
+ Anima (æ/ær): a watchful node for Ora city who connects to the Gleaming to inhabit and jump animal bodies throughout the city to check on matters of interest (fugitives, potential suicides, etc.)
+ Vessel (se/ser): a mysterious traveler who has a trunk where each artifact inside tells a tale
+ Because this reads more like a short story collection embedded within the Anima/Vessel story, I'm going to rate each, as I would a short story collection... Anima/Vessel (4 stars), A Death Made Manifold (3.5 stars), This Form I Hold Now (3 stars), The Sky and Everything Under (1 star), As Dark as Hunger (4 stars)
+ some cool things I liked: the Gleaming as a concept, mermaids, a kitsune, a zeppelin

/ This is a stories-within-the-story plot. I don't like Russian doll narratives, although I know many people do.

- Honestly, I find the story-within-a-story repetition boring because it halts the main plot in the same way over and over and over again. I would *sigh* before dipping into each new tale because I really wanted to know more about the Anima/Vessel storyline more than anything.
- One story, The Sky and Everything Under, is a reading of a collection of letters. So it is many stories within a story within a story. I really disliked the technique and skimmed through the last of the letters (otherwise I was going to DNF this book).

TW: suicide, death, consensual cutting, foot-binding, war
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Before I review this book I will say that it has content in it that could be triggering to some readers. There is a trigger warning at the front of the book which I greatly appreciate. The warning is for a completed suicide. While it is not one of the more societally viewed bloody and graphic suicides, it's still there and is important to the development of the main character and it is heartbreaking to read. 

I would have also appreciated a warning for cutting. It happens toward the end of the story and it sort of threw me for a bit. It's described in detail and the character says she doesn't view it as self mutilation but when you read the parts, it reads like someone who cuts for relief. I wish the content warning would have covered this because it was jarring for me. 

Now, getting into the story. This is a fantastic scifi story. There are neopronouns in the story and while some readers may find them difficult to parse, it's not something that you don't get used to very fast. 

It's a story with stories within which is always a fun read. Here's the thing: none of those stories have happy endings. That doesn't make them bad, the main character is experiencing them and it's incredible to see how ae changes. 

On the pronouns, ae is that a and e combo letter. I don't know what it's called or how to type it--sorry. There's also se,ser,sers so it's not difficult. 

Anima is a node and it is aer job to monitor the city along with the other nods and keep people safe. You learn a lot about the city through the interwoven tales and it's magnificent. 

I wanted to put the book down because I was tired when I read but I couldn't. I had to know how things were going to end and I wanted to know where Anima ended up. I wanted to know how it wrapped up to the point that I read until my eyes hurt. 

The author has such an incredible writing style. It's beautiful and ae paint pictures with their words. 

Note: the author also uses ae,aer,aers pronouns. 

Back to the writing. Is it weird to say it was annoying how beautiful I found it when reading about heartbreaking moments? It made them really stick and hurt because of how skilled the author is. 

I want to find more of aer work because this was so good and I hope I am in a place where I can read it if the themes are dark or if the content is triggering. 

My only big issue with the book is that the trigger warning didn't cover cutting. 

All in all five (5) stars. Some may find the stories a little hard to get into but once you do, they won't let you go. 

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for this ARC
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n the Watchful City is a debut novella by author S Qiouyi Lu.  It's a fascinating novella filled with themes of control, happiness, colonialism, empire, love, memories, family and more.  It's a story that takes place in a city tied together by magic, a magic that the city uses to have its select individuals watch over everyone, through taking possession of animals and other beings around the city, to ensure no unwanted sadness or love is ever felt.  The story follows one such watcher, Anima, as ae encounters a spectral visitor who carries a suitcase filled with memories and tells aer stories of those memories of the outside world, making aer question everything ae knows as ae fails in aer role as a watcher and protector of the city and sees that pain is felt both within and without its walls  

Trigger Warnings: Suicide, Self-Harm.

Quick Plot Summary:  Anima is one of the eight inner most nodes of the City of Ora, a city of people escaping trauma from an Empire.  The city enforces strict rules for the welfare and happiness of the city, rules enforced by beings like Anima, who use the magical Gleaming to body hop into animals to watch over everyone in the city, and ensure that no one loves, lives, or tries to die in any unapproved fashion.  But when several attempts to enforce the rules goes wrong, and Anima meets the strange storyteller known as Vessel, Anima begins to wonder if there is the ways of Ora are truly the only proper ones, and if there is something out there for ae* to explore.  

*Anima's pronouns are ae/aer, in case that was unclear from this review.*

Thoughts:  In the Watchful City is a story rich with themes, of Empire, of freedom vs safety and happiness, of love and grief, and more.  The story is told in large part through the interactions of Anima with a storyteller (Vessel) who tells ae stories based upon the objects Vessel carries in a briefcase.  The stories relate to the outside world, where a conquering Empire tried to enforce cultural norms against the peoples it conquered, tried to turn such peoples against each other, resulted in death and sorrow, and eventually turned in against itself to create a democracy...which may or may not be an improvement.  The stories are all excellent and rich in themes and contrast with Anima's own home - and aes own tragic childhood - which was formed by exiles from the Empire into a city that's basically a police state....for the sake of enforcing happiness of a specific kind.   

I don't know how to explain this any better without spoiling, but it's really interesting in showing the issues of Empire and life reacting to it in various ways, in security vs happiness, and in very different ways than you might expect.  Well worth your time.
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[ Overall Thoughts ]
In The Watchful City is a lushly written collection of short stories of different formats within a framing narrative. The framing narrative takes place in a biocyberpunk setting, following Anima who is one of eight 'nodes' tethered directly into the Gleaming and tasked with maintaining the city and its citizens' lives. This requires Anima to transport ær consciousness through the Gleaming into various animals nearby any incident that requires ær attention. The setting of the framing narrative gave me Matrix vibes, but make it nature. The imagery is vibrant and detailed and was almost too much for me to wrap my head around, which fostered a fantastical, far-future feel.

When a traveler appears at Anima's door with a strange case full of a variety of objects, æ is able to explore the lives of the previous owners of the objects. These stories provide glimpses of lives, sometimes in a moment of joy or triumph, sometimes in a moment of tragedy.

"We still cannot enter someone's soul to navigate the interior sea of the mind. But we can take a moment, a story, that illuminates their spirit, if only one facet. Yet that is what makes life the brilliant gem that it is: the collection of all those facets into a prism. A lens."

In The Watchful City proved to be imaginative and addictive; I found myself putting the book aside simply because I didn't want to finish it and have it be over. I do wish we'd had more time in the framing narrative to see more of the city and Anima's role there to better understand æ and ær motivations. Overall I really enjoyed the characters, world, and writing style, and the framing narrative worked so well to tell many different stories in several formats.

[ Suggested Audience ]
Readers who like a good framing narrative and descriptive, vibrant prose.
Readers looking for futuristic sci-fi and are intrigued by the label biocyberpunk.
Readers who enjoy short stories and varied formats.

[ TL;DR ]
In The Watchful City was an imagination-grabbing trek into a futuristic world of connection and separation, interspersed with glimpses into other lives in the form of short stories.
Content Warning for discussion and depiction of suicide
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First and foremost I would like to thank NetGalley and Tor for proving me with a copy for review. 

While I didn't think that was a bad book, this had no impact on me whatsoever. I will say though that it could be entirely my fault as I was having technical issues with the ebook, and I may have lost my motivation and focus along the way. 

My computer simply wasn't able to handle the file for some reason and the program kept crashing. I was also not able to zoom in to make the font a more comfortable size for my eyes, and thus I had a hard time getting my eyes to focus on the words because they were so small. When I tried reading it on my phone I kept getting an error message saying that the book already exists and wouldn't download... These are just technical issues though and I am sure your experience won't be the same as mine. 


As a starting note, something I greatly appreciate is the fact the author put trigger warnings at the beginning and indicated which stories, in particular, could be triggering. 

The writing was easy enough to follow and there were some minor grammatical issues such as added spaces between words and missing letters. This is an ARC though so it is expected that there might be some grammatical errors that will be fixed. What threw me off though, was the use of the pronouns ae/aer and se/ser. 

I have never heard of these pronouns before and when I tried to look them up, I didn't get a concrete answer. I either got a list of pronouns with no explanation as to which scenario they would be used in, or that they were a neopronoun that was first invented in reference to an alien race. I just couldn't wrap my head around it and it kind of threw me out of the story. 

Plot and World-Building:

Two plotlines are told in this story. One half follows our protagonist Anima who patrols the city, and the other half follows stories told between Anima and another character, Vessel. I think that some interesting elements were at play here but, as I said earlier, I just didn't feel any connection to the stories and felt rather detached while reading this. Things would be happening and I would just keep on going without much emotion or reaction. 

This is a novella so there is only so much room for world-building. I thought that what elements that were included in this were fleshed out enough to establish the world.  

Concluding Thoughts:

Don't let yourself get deterred from reading this based on my experience as I don't think I gave this as much attention as I could have. If you are looking for a story along the lines of The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell, then maybe this will work for you as well. As I said in the writing section though, please note that there are trigger warnings, so read the foreword notes before you dive in.
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In the Watchful City is the future of science fiction.  Lu has written a truly remarkable story that every author and reader should take stock of.
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Thank you to NetGalley, S. Qiouyi Lu and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for the advanced reader copy.

Story within a story is my absolute favourite trope in literature so I'm sad to say In the Watchful City left me wanting more, and not in a good way.

Anima is a node in the city of Ora, and nodes are extrasensory beings tasked with protecting the city. One day, æ is visited by Vessel, a psychopomp carrying a cabinet of stories. Vessel offers Anima stories from the cabinet in exchange of something of ærs.

Neither the main story nor the vignettes really went anywhere. There was a man trying to bring his brother back to life, a young person deciding she wants to live as a girl and subsequently participating in a fictional sport match that took up way too many pages, a collection of letters and court paperwork regarding a traitorous duarch, and some mermaids. It sounds interesting on paper but whatever each of these stories was supposed to be or was meant to represent was extremely basic and unfinished once stripped of all the beautiful language and metaphors. Most of it sounded like the opening chapter of its own book.

Anima's main story was lacking because we're told æ spent more of ær life as a node than as whoever æ was before, but the novella starts in medias res and the two short snippets from ær node-life are supposed to make us believe æ is suddenly having doubts about the whole system. The premise itself is good but I would love to find out more about Anima and Vessel and the duarchy and how everything works in this world so I hope S. decides to expand on their idea some day.

The one thing I was most impressed with wasn't even in the novella. It was in the Acknowledgments:

[...] decolonial stories are possible. You told me to write my weird, and that freed me from trying to tailor my stories for anyone but myself. My stories are so much stronger now. No matter what people remember us for, we will always have this.

If that is the purpose of S. Qiouyi Lu's writing, then I'm glad they're achieving it.
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~cabinet of curiosities = treasure-trove of delights
~is anyone straight and cis??? no
~magic + scifi = perfect
~would you rather possess a gecko or a crow???
~if you chose one item to represent your life, what would it be?

I do not know nearly enough about Asian cultures to be able to tell you which parts of this novella (names, countries, cultures) draw from which real-life people and place – it’s clear this book draws inspiration from various parts of Asia, but I couldn’t guess at specifics until I looked through reviews written by more knowledgeable readers. (This review over on Goodreads is a great example.)

All I can tell you is that In The Watchful City is absolutely beautiful.

The book description uses the term ‘mosaic novella’, which I think is perfect: as a mosaic is made up of multiple coloured tiles or stones to make a whole, In The Watchful City is made up of several short stories, contained and given context by an overarching tale. The stories-within-a-story framework is one of my very favourite tropes, and I loved the twist on it here, with each story literally being contained as a memento within a qíjìtáng, the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ mentioned in the book description. The description of the qíjìtáng and its contents is absolutely enchanting; I was overwhelmed with the wanting to hear the story of each and every object.

The sheer number of colors and textures and materials is a feast of sensory data that makes Anima’s head tingle. Warped glass bottles, curiously shaped stones, bundles of documents, glittering trinkets and ornaments, dried flowers still scented with fragile fragrances, textiles woven from unfamiliar threads, taxidermied animals æ’s never seen in the city…

Anima is an augmented human, one of several who oversees the city of Ora. That makes ær sound like a government figure, and æ isn’t; æ functions a lot like a protective AI (which is actually what I thought æ was at first), keeping Ora’s citizens safe and quickly finding criminals through ær awareness of the metaphysical Gleaming and ær ability to possess any of Ora’s wildlife. Ora itself is beautiful, and the blending of technology with the magical Gleaming makes In The Watchful City a rare Science Fantasy novel – which makes perfect sense, because once you start reading, it becomes readily apparent that Lu is not interested in following normal rules or keeping their stories neatly boxed in a single genre category. Science Fantasy is the place where Sci Fi and Fantasy meet to create coruscatingly original stories that neither could contain alone, and you can feel that joyful casting-off of genre expectations in every word of this book.

It is different, and it is different in a way that delights in its own strangeness. Although In The Watchful City repeatedly touched on dark or painful topics – Anima witnesses a suicide-by-drowning in ær role as city-guardian, and the stories within the qíjìtáng contain what’s essentially Chinese foot-binding, sexual (or semi-sexual?) masochism combined with body dysphoria, and references to humans eating (parts of) other sapient beings – it still managed to feel like a celebration. Of human experience, maybe; of language, certainly – I wouldn’t describe the prose as purple at all, but it’s still descriptive and lush and gorgeous. Lu has an incredible way with words; the moment I finished In The Watchful City, I immediately wanted to read it again, just for the beauty of their prose.

the familiar calluses where the handles of her blades have kissed skin so often it’s turned to stone

Anima’s story revolves around the stories æ is told by Vessel, the mysterious but entrancing keeper of the qíjìtáng, and the effect those stories have on ær, how they interact with Anima’s own experiences as Ora’s guardian. But I don’t feel like I can describe any of the stories from the qíjìtáng for you, because even the vaguest description would be a spoiler – you need to greet each story without any preconceptions, any idea what’s coming, to feel the full magic of it. So I will only tell you that they are each stunning, and each very different. The connections between them are not obvious – maybe there aren’t supposed to be any connections between them, but they still don’t feel random. They still fit together, like tiles in a mosaic, to make the most beautiful whole.

The description compares In The Watchful City to Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest, and I get why – both books feature incredible, fantastical cities (and absolutely exquisite prose). But I think it would be more accurate to place it side by side with her Orphan’s Tales duology – which, if you haven’t read it, a) you should, and b) it’s a kind of Arabian Nights-style masterpiece made up of hundreds of interlocking stories. The stories in In The Watchful City don’t melt into each other in the same way, but this is still a story about stories, and about the human experience. What we have in common. What’s important. The ways we all find to matter, and all the different things ‘mattering’ can mean.

It’s just gorgeous. I know I’ve said that so many times, but that’s because it’s true, and because I don’t know how else to say it. In The Watchful City is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a long time, and it’s going to stay with me for a long time. I’m going to read it again, and I’ll probably read it again after that. I don’t want it to be over, and I can’t wait to see what Lu writes next, and you had better preorder your copy right now because darlings, this is one of 2021’s treasures and you don’t want to miss it.
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CW: suicide, mention of a suicide attempt, body mutilation, foot binding

I’ve only read one short story by the author before but I was so profoundly moved by it, that I had to add this novella to my tbr as soon as I got to know about it. And was doubly excited when I got the arc. 

I will be honest and say it took me a few pages to get into this story and it was pretty slow going until then. Biocyberpunk is not a genre I would willingly pick up if not for being excited about the author’s work, and it’s also my shortcoming for not being aware enough about neopronouns that extensive usage of them in this story hindered my reading a bit at the beginning. But the author employs a story with the story kind of narrative device in this book, and by the time I was done with the first narrated “story”, I was totally hooked. Rooted in Asian history and culture, the author deeply explores themes of grief and oppression and trauma, and how they affect us, sometimes even without us knowing that we are experiencing the effects. Another thing that really connected to me was the subtle discussion about borders and immigration, and how this has a disparate impact on one’s core identity as well as relationship with family.  

Amina is a fascinating character. Æ became an extrasensory human to watch over the city of Ora because ær circumstances didn’t leave Amina many choices. But new traumatic experiences has ær questioning if æ are truly protecting the citizens and if ær choices are correct. Meeting the enigmatic Vessel and ser cabinet of curiosities also opens up a whole new world of stories and possibilities to Amina, finally letting ær feel comfortable enough to make life altering decisions for ærself. We also meet many amazing characters within the narrated stories, who give us glimpses into understanding what having agency and being able to make choices means, and questioning us if we have the strength to face the consequences. 

Overall, this was a very unique, one of a kind book which even if confusing at times, is something to be experienced. This queernormative Asian inspired futuristic world and it’s deeply moving characters have left an impression on me and I would definitely want everyone to dive into it as well. Just remember that this novella is more on the profound and thought provoking side, and not a fast paced sci-fi adventure.
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One of my favourite kinds of novellas is the kind of novella where we have an interesting setting and some kind of focal point, around which we have a number of short stories. It's a tried and tested formula and In the Watchful City is yet another novella where we see it work. 

It also follows a classic novella technique of giving you, the reader, just enough information about the world that you can start to form ideas about it, while also not just info dumping everything at you in the first 3 pages. This is not a world that you will fully comprehend by the end of the story, but you do get a fair idea of some of the facets of life in this world and the kind of things that are valued by its inhabitants. I think novellas are such an interesting way to look at worldbuilding and this book definitely sparked some great visuals in my mind. 

I think this is a novella that will benefit from multiple readings, I found it a little bit tricky to parse out what the important details were during the opening sections and I think I could pull out more of the themes if I read it again. Thankfully one of my criteria for a good novella is that desire to reread, to explore even this shorter format again. 

I wouldn't say this was one of my favourite novellas I've read this year, certainly not from just one reading, but I do think that S. Qiouyi Lu has a remarkable voice and imagination and I will be looking out for more from this author in the future. I'd recommend this to those who know that they like and appreciate novellas, particularly those in this style. 

I received a free digital advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions are my own,
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