Cover Image: In the Watchful City

In the Watchful City

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Member Reviews

This was an intriguing read, following the main character Anima through a matrix style world who meets a kind of story teller. It's almost like an anthology of tales mixed into a 'main' plot and the interactions between.
Is certainly nothing I've read before and was an interesting writing mechanic
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I'm afraid I find the author's style to be highly unengaging. The narration has this passive quality to it that robs scenes of their momentum and I found myself really not caring for any of it (the characters and the 'story').
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First off the synopsis doesn't really fit with the book...
Secondly, I am very aware of pronouns and such, but the Æ pronoun was still a bit daunting for me right off the bat, especially when multiple beings have it and it's different forms ( ær, se, e, sæ etc). It made it difficult to follow, and I know many people are not familiar with this pronoun and would get completely lost. Possibly a bit of an explainer to the reader before diving full-tilt into it would be of benefit?
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In the Watchful City is an Asian-centric adult queer fantasy novella about living (and death) with a heart-racing ending.

The main character Anima (æ/ær/ær) is part of the city’s surveillance system the Gleaming (think The Matrix), one of the eight nodes in the inner sanctum. When æ meets Vessel (se/ser/ser), who carries a qíjìtáng full of knickknacks and memories from different people, ær curiosity brings ær to realize that there is more to life than guarding the city of Ora.

I don’t think I completely understood everything that had happened. And yet, I enjoyed the storytelling so much! Lu’s overall concept and execution of bringing mostly Asian history and culture into the story are so satisfying. There were maybe five non-English sentences, including Mandarin and Manchu (both languages were renamed in the story), and some of the terms are real things like Bǐyìniǎo (比翼鳥: birds that fly in twos; the word is used to describe soul mates). Also, I love the political animosity between countries and that a lot of the side characters’ names were of different romanizations and languages (Spanish, Mandarin Pinyin with tones, Mandarin Wade–Giles with tones, Cantonese, Hokkien, Japanese, Thai, etc.). Another thing I was happy to see was that for Mandarin names, family names come before given names!

In the Watchful City consists of fragmented stories. Ocean Vuong once said that “[...] cohesion was not part of my generation’s imagination, nor our language, or our self identity. And I felt that if I were to write my version of an American novel, it would have to look more like fragmentation.” (video here) Through Anima’s story, ær interactions with Enigma (e/em/eir) and Vessel, all the stories in the qíjìtáng, we get the themes of mental health and grief, assimilation, growth and living. Lu mentioned in ær acknowledgments that the narrative is focused on agency and it is also a decolonial story.

One last thing I’d like to mention is that the relation between Ora and Skyland sounds like that between Taiwan and China. Given that the history in our world was interwoven with the fantasy world in In the Watchful City, to me, this part feels especially close and real. “Why prevent Orans from seeing Skylanders? History? Are politics worth separating families and lovers for?”

[content warnings: on-page suicide (drowning), on-page assisted suicide, loss of sibling, on-page foot binding, mention of hanging, consensual body mutilation, physical abuse of sentient beings, blood, assimilation]

* I received a digital review copy from Tordotcom via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Quotation may change upon publication.
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This book is a poem about a city that watches over all its citizens, and a love letter to the story each person carries with them, all while asking can any amount of knowledge truly protect everyone? And if so at what cost?
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This was a vivid and intriguing book. The writing was gorgeous and enchanting, and really added a lot to the experience. In some ways, reading this felt like a dream, a lyrical reverie inside this intricately woven scifi/fantasy world.
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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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