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In the Watchful City

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In the Watchful City explores borders, power, diaspora, and transformation in an Asian-inspired mosaic novella that melds the futurism of Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station with the magical wonder of Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest.

The city of Ora uses a complex living network called the Gleaming to surveil its inhabitants and maintain harmony. Anima is one of the cloistered extrasensory humans tasked with watching over Ora's citizens. 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 all harm.

All that changes when a mysterious visitor enters the city carrying a cabinet of curiosities from around the world, with a story attached to each item. As Anima’s world expands beyond the borders of Ora to places—and possibilities—æ never before imagined to exist, æ finds ærself asking a question that throws into doubt ær entire purpose: What good is a city if it can’t protect its people?

192 pages, Paperback

First published August 31, 2021

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About the author

S. Qiouyi Lu

44 books64 followers
S. Qiouyi Lu writes, translates, and edits between two coasts of the Pacific. Their work has appeared in several award-winning venues. They edit the magazine Arsenika and run microverses, a hub for tiny narratives.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 269 reviews
Profile Image for Hsinju Chen.
Author 2 books199 followers
August 31, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Henk.
847 reviews
December 15, 2021
Fascinating bio cyberpunk worldbuilding, decidedly queer and even incorporating Yggdrasil, kitsune and mermaids. This book packs a lot, leading me at times to be a bit confused but also excited for a longer work of the author
I am not myself without my heritage

Like the Aeon flux movie on steroids: really enjoyable, vibrant and ambitious in scope, although the parsimoniousness of the work leaves something to desire.
Exciting comes to mind when trying to describe In the Watchful City.

A being who can transcend into animals is roaming around a futuristic city-state.
Anima is visited by a Vessel, who narrates three stories about objects obtained at key moments in lives.
Neo pronouns come back as well, and invented sports with a kind of diabolos.
All of these stories are effortlessly queer, we have a resurrection quite similar to Full Metal Alchemist. The world is kind of unclear, with two suns and kitsune, mermaids and upside down Yggdrasil coming back, but feels Asian through and through with a kind of Malaysia like country spread over two islands.

Despite some shocking events, including suicide, exploitation of humanoids, clear hints of colonialism and cutting into skins, the events in the book feel distant. The structure of the book, with three separate stories in a larger story, in only slightly more than 200 pages, doesn't help in bringing all the ideas fully into the limelight.

To write one first needs to live S. Qiouyi Lu says in the acknowledgements and this book certainly makes curious for more and longer works.
Profile Image for CW ✨.
644 reviews1,692 followers
August 15, 2021
In the Watchful City challenges and pushes the boundaries of science-fiction fantasy and I absolutely loved it. Reading this was a transcendent experience; thoroughly unique, intriguing, and subverts so many ideas of gender, culture, and belonging.

- Follows Anima, a extrasensory non-binary human tasked with watching over the city of Ora's citizens. When a mysterious visitor enters the city and invites aer to listen to the stories behind the mysterious objects in the visitor's possession, aer world is challenged and thrown into question.
- I loved that this novella had stories within stories; stories that melded biocyberpunk futurism with folklore and mythology, and explored the beauty, the pain, the struggle, and the complexity of life and living.
- This novella delves deeply into the intersections of gender, heritage, and power; it's also delightfully queer and explores grief, power, oppression, and abuse.
- The stories are thoroughly Asian-inspired and Asian-influenced, and I enjoyed how Lu subverts cultural and historical norms and imbues them with new meaning and perspective.
- This was truly unlike anything I've ever read, but it was phenomenal. I cannot wait to see waht else Lu writes in the future.

Trigger/content warning: on-page suicide, mention of a suicide attempt, self-harm, body mutilations

I received a digital advanced reader's copy in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Montzalee Wittmann.
4,558 reviews2,312 followers
August 17, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Lata.
3,589 reviews191 followers
January 28, 2022
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.
Profile Image for gauri.
180 reviews393 followers
August 19, 2021
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.

cw: on-page suicide, mention of a suicide attempt, self-harm, body mutilations

thank you tordotcom and netgalley for the arc!
Profile Image for nessma.
180 reviews94 followers
August 20, 2021
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 is so vivid and viscerally-written 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.
Profile Image for Andy.
2,408 reviews189 followers
November 7, 2021
Thank you so much to Tor.com and B2Weird Tours for a finished copy of this novella in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

In the Watchful City is a book about Anima (æ/ær/ær) who is an extrasensory human that interacts with the complex living network of Ora called the Gleaming. Anima maintains watch over all the citizens of Ora and makes sure no one comes to harm. But when a visitor with a cabinet of curiosities comes to visit, everything Anima thought was true comes into question.

This story is full of stories within stories. It deep dives into what emotions and experiences make us human and the bonds that tie humanity together. This story also explores queerness in a way that's so normative it's like walking into a big queer group hug. Lu tells this story in fragments, and the non-linear timeline worked so well for this story. I loved seeing all the various characters and then coming back to the main storyline between Anima and Engima (se/ser/ser). Lu's writing was rich and I know I'm going to be diving back into this book soon to relive this experience!

CWs: Suicide, death, death of sibling, foot binding, blood, colonisation, self harm, violence.

Profile Image for laurel [the suspected bibliophile].
1,410 reviews389 followers
October 8, 2021
3.5 stars, rounded up

Creative and interesting, and I really enjoyed the commentary on surveillance states, urban living, changing cultural norms (and clashing cultures), and how it was so queer with so many different beings coexisting (peacefully and violently).
Profile Image for Rachel (TheShadesofOrange).
2,081 reviews2,939 followers
August 18, 2021
3.5 Stars
As someone who loves queer Asian inspired fantasy, this novella sounded right up my alley. Certainly, this book had those element, but the execution was not to my tastes. 

I loved the inclusion of non binary characters which brought unique vocabulary into the prose. These ownvoices representation always bring interesting conversation surrounding gender roles and societal norms. Likewise, the cultural aspects added a rich diverseness to the story.

Yet, the narrative itself just did not work for me. Telling stories within the framework of a larger story has always been a temperamental narrative choice. I actually liked several of the short stories, but felt the book lacked overall cohesiveness. I am largely a plot driven reader and I just felt the book was lacking in that area. I thought the writing was lyrical, but that alone did not make for a satisfying read. 

This one missed the mark for me, but I still appreciated enough of the elements that I would recommend it to readers who do not mind more whimsical, meandering narratives. The story is packed full of potential, so perhaps I am simply not the right reader.

Disclaimer I received a copy of this book from the publisher. 
Profile Image for Para (wanderer).
359 reviews194 followers
February 13, 2022
I'm not sure how to describe In the Watchful City, but I have always liked stories with an experimental structure and this novella is no exception. The story-within-a-story structure with poetry, letters, all kinds of forms mixed in worked really well for me, and I found the setting(s) fascinating. It manages to do a lot in very little (pagecount-wise), without much explanation, which I'm sure will bother some, but then again, that's always been a feature rather than a bug for me.

I would, however, like to see more - both from this world and this author.

Enjoyment: 4/5
Execution: 5/5

Recommended to: fellow fans of the experimental and the weird, those who like stories within stories, those looking for stories that use a varied array of pronouns (including a bunch of different neopronouns)

More reviews on my blog, To Other Worlds.
Profile Image for Margaret.
1,158 reviews60 followers
May 10, 2021
This is such an interesting and lovely literary SFF novella. It's a layered narrative, with stories within stories. Also uses multiple queer pronouns, ae, se, e. I'm quite interested in what this author will write next.

Content warning for on-page suicide, mention of a suicide attempt, self-harm, body mutilations.
Profile Image for Katie.
303 reviews60 followers
November 15, 2021
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. All thoughts are my own.

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.
Profile Image for Isabel.
682 reviews115 followers
Want to read
October 5, 2020
Tor acquires the BEST novellas, I am beyond excited about this!
Profile Image for Azrah.
228 reviews1 follower
August 31, 2021
**I was provided with an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review**

CW: on-page suicide, drowning, mention of a suicide attempt, self-harm, body mutilations, blood, family abandonment

Taking place in an Asian centric world, In the Watchful City follows an extrasensory human called Anima who through a network called the Gleaming monitors the city of Ora and it’s citizens. Along with the other Guardians of the city, the Gleaming allows ær to jump into the bodies of the different animals that live there. One day æ finds that the city’s borders have been breached by an unwarranted traveller carrying a suitcase full of peculiar items. Each item holds a link, a story to someone and somewhere out in the wider world which, upon hearing them, open Anima’s mind and curiosity to life beyond the walls æ has always known.

This is one captivating science fantasy novella (penned as biocyberpunk by the author), somewhat reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities though it also has the feel of stumbling through one of the doors in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series.

Lu’s writing skilfully explores the themes of authority, identity and grief and their use of a non-traditional, mish-mash of narrative styles brilliantly captures the individual atmospheres and emotions of the recounted tales.

If you’re a fan of stories within stories definitely give this one a read.
Final Rating – 3.75/5 Stars
Profile Image for Sophie - biblisophagist .
393 reviews6 followers
May 5, 2021
"There is something that remains you no matter where you are, when you are, what you are. So, I'll ask you one question: Who are you?"

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

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

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

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

Thank you to NetGalley and MacMillan - Tor/Forge for my ARC in exchange for an honest review!
Profile Image for ReadBecca.
824 reviews86 followers
January 31, 2022
This would have been a very good short story collection, but instead a series of disparate short stories feel shoved into a cyberpunk/biopunk framing plot. The worldbuilding is cool but minimal, the characters are indistinct from one another, the prose was nice though often formatting left me spending a lot of time only to find nothing. I'm sure there was likely clear intention in mind, but every page I turned I was left with the question why is this happening, why is this used here, how does this thing connect to the rest, how does this contribute to the larger whole? In the end I had no answers why, nothing connected or contributed to a greater whole. As a cohesive novella there are ideas there, but the execution didn't work for me and felt the author failed to communicate with the reader.

More in my video discussion here - https://youtu.be/nkK10d-97mE
Profile Image for S.T. 瑶瑶.
139 reviews28 followers
March 3, 2023
03/02/2022 EDIT: Since the first time I read this, I couldn't stop thinking about it so I re-read it and you know what. If people can change, so too can book ratings. And for some unexplainable reason, I've come to like this a lot.


"I've got some things to take care of, and then I can get out of limbo and take another shot at life."
"What things?"
"Stories," Vessel says, unlatching the qíjìtáng. As it unfolds, ser words punctuate the clatters and snaps. "Histories. Lives. It's my job to collect them until this qíjìtáng is full."

2 stars

In the Watchful City is a vividly written, genre-bending novella that does exactly as its description says it does: explores borders, power, diaspora, and transformation in an Asian-inspired mosaic novella.

I won't lie, the exploration packs a punch. The overall quality of the writing itself? Terribly lacking.

This book was filled with things that I normally love — from genre-bending settings and dramatic worldbuilding to interesting character concepts and philosophical undertones. And it was beautifully written to boot! But it lacked what is, to me, the most important element in a story: cohesion .

There were passages in this book that straight-up felt like an acid trip. The narrative (if you could even call it that) read like a puzzle of mindblowing ideas that didn't quite know how to fit together, therefore resulting in an incredibly disjointed picture. It was like the story had nothing to go off of, no driving force. In the end, In the Watchful City felt like a cathartic tale about... disconnected emotions and... a bio-cyberpunk setting. This book definitely didn't want me to forget its bio-cyberpunkness. (Really, it even relates masturbating and orgasms to the bio-cyberpunk data stream for several paragraphs.)

The characterwork also left something to be desired. A certain character telling another: "you can know about (1) of the things in my collection, if you give me (1) thing just as important back" and then several pages later claims that knowing one means they can know the rest is... perplexing.

That said, I do want to credit the short stories scattered throughout the book and their worldbuilding. There are some parts of this book that I truly enjoyed and found engaging. I just think I would've liked it a lot better as an anthology.

Content Warnings: abandonment (familial), blood, body mutilations, death, masturbating, self-harm, suicide (live), violence.
Profile Image for roma.
332 reviews85 followers
January 31, 2022
In the watchful city is a asian inspired sff biopunk novella which contains stories within stories(think the starless sea), following Anima, our protagonist.

I really enjoyed some stories, the one with chinese trans woman footbinding and the mermaid one was quite vivid and struck out to me. I love the storytelling elements and while I didn't understand everything the book carried on with a sense that I wasn't supposed to a bit like time war. I loved how it showed Anima's grief and I always like exploration of what makes a utopia and how they work and the deconstruction of that.

There wasn't any issue perse but I also wasn't sucked in as much as I wanted to be, it wasn't boring but after one story ended I wasn't compelled to pick up another. All in all I liked a lot of the elements and it's a good novella if you don't mind being confused a little.

content warning: completed on-page suicide, mention of a suicide attempt, self-harm, body mutilations, family abandonment

Thank you to the publisher and netgalley for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.
Profile Image for Nore.
732 reviews37 followers
September 13, 2021
I went into this expecting magical sci-fi and instead got pure magic with a sci-fi veneer, which was a huge disappointment for me right off the bat. The plot is paper-thin; the progression is nonsensical; and the characters are bland and lifeless, so I felt nothing for pretty much anyone in this book. The MC starts masturbating for no reason almost immediately after hearing a traumatic tale about a man attempting to revive his dead brother (if I had to guess, it was because the dude had the hots for the sheriff, but, okay? So?).

The author defends footbinding as an expression of cultural identity and Womanhood (the character in question actually chooses to become a woman because... she wants bound feet.... and men can't have bound feet? This Is Feminism) and treats it as something this character finds deeply empowering. Let's not talk about the fact that something can be an expression of cultural identity and still be a sexist practice that cripples and mutilates women. (ETA: I mention this because the author specifically mentions in the acknowledgements that they did research and wrote the tale to focus on agency.)

And to top it off, the whole gambit this book is premised upon, "what if a city had a set of magical omnipresent watchers who could possess any animal within its limits," was used to the hilarious effect of a racoon attempting to apprehend a suspect, which is so stupid it ruined the whole tone of the book for me about 10% in. No, I can't take you seriously, Anima, you tried to catch a full-grown man as a raccoon. No cops in the future... Only possessed rats.
Profile Image for Kristin B. Bodreau.
284 reviews51 followers
December 26, 2021
Too many concepts with not enough supporting narrative. There were about seven very different books trying to fit themselves into a novella. And that isn’t even a complaint about the “stories within a story format.” I actually generally don’t mind that. There were too many different aspects to the world that just didn’t fit together, and weren’t expanded on to help make them mesh.

If you like interesting concepts and stories, and don’t actually need them to be cohesive, you probably won’t mind this. It certainly had some fascinating features. But I need a bit more structure or a few less crammed in ideas.
Profile Image for Matt Quann.
628 reviews383 followers
May 4, 2023
Despite a really cool premise and some banging cover art, this is a profoundly weird novel. In fact, it’s a little like a short story collection with occasional poetry interludes. I rather liked all the different stories’ styles and the use of novel neopronouns. Occasionally it’s a little over the top with suffering. I wish each of the stories had been fleshed out a bit more. There’s a sense of a greater world, but some of the more brief sections feel almost like a mood board rather than a proper story.

Proceed with caution.

[2.5 Stars]
Profile Image for Drew.
1,569 reviews505 followers
May 27, 2021
A fascinating, complex mosaic novel that brings to mind THE INVISIBLE MAN but queered and stranger and far more full of complicated emotion. This book delighted and surprised, and I would've loved it even more if it was twice as long -- there was so much *there* there.
Profile Image for Kira Thebookbella.
524 reviews94 followers
September 19, 2021
For more discussions on this book, you can find my YouTube review at: https://youtu.be/EEQOPvqvBuQ

"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.
Profile Image for Joel.
631 reviews18 followers
August 8, 2022
This book had so much potential, but fell extremely flat for me.

I loved the premise of a watchful city, of a being able to enter the bodies of a myriad of different creatures and see things through their eyes. But the implementation just left a lot to be desired for me.

The author states that they wrote for themselves, and that's fine. I would think you would feel a lot more accomplished if you wrote something that resonated with you instead of whatever you thought would sell fast to make you a quick dollar. But, for me, the creation of custom pronouns felt a bit over the top and pointless. Would it have been difficult to use they/them? It just seemed a bit pretentious to create new words when other suitable ones exist, and it distracted from the stories for me.

Oddly enough, for a sci-fi/fantasy book, the stories that rang truest and felt most real were ones which the author related were based on true stories and/or research they had done before writing. These parts (particularly the ones dealing with the practice of foot binding) were the strongest and probably the only good thing I will remember about this hot mess.

1 out of 5 stars.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
184 reviews14 followers
September 30, 2021
"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." - S. Qiouyi Lu

There are content warnings provided by the author in the front of the book. I appreciate that. This is an emotionally intense read. It is also challenging to connect the pieces and assemble the bits of the larger story. A couple of sections seem to be in poetry. The overall structure is a main story with two main characters interspersed with some interconnected short stories. In essence, the main characters, Anima and Vessel, are swapping stories. Life, death and the boundaries between are major themes throughout. There are also political and cultural boundaries. Nonbinary and trans characters disolve the boundaries of gender. There is a whole lot to unpack even though this is a novella. I was intrigued throughout and enjoyed following the threads to connect snapshots from a larger story together. There is a sense of history and how things came to be the way they are for the main characters. It also builds the wider world outside of the city. Anima has not gone beyond the city limits.
Profile Image for Caroline.
592 reviews800 followers
November 3, 2021
In the Watchful City is an Asian-centric, queer fantasy novella that is well worth the read. I've seen other reviews describe it as a 'biotech cyberpunk' which seems accurate.
We follow Anima (æ/ær/ær) who is part of the city of Ora's surveillance system, known as The Gleaming. Ae meets Vessel (se/ser/ser), who carries a 'qíjìtáng' full of curiosities from around the world. Anima is drawn by these and the story branches into a series of smaller stories attaches to these items.
I loved that each story felt influenced or inspired by Asian culture to varying degrees and reflected on belonging, power and gender. The stories felt fresh, as did the wider novella about Anima. I look forward to reading more from this author.
Profile Image for Ergative Absolutive.
330 reviews9 followers
November 4, 2021
Wow, I really, really hated this book. It was disagreeable--repeated invocations of self-harm as some sort of fucked up expression of identity--and literary in the worst sense of the word. Repeated portions of the book lapsed into this bizarre 'poetry'--bad enough--but then the author also decided to do these batshit things with punctuation that were utterly baffling. Curly brackets and tildes and equals signs and parentheses that, whatever they were intended to do (prosody? what's the intended intonational expression that is conveyed by an equals sign, relative to a tilde?), they were doing it only in the author's head. (The open-parens and close-parens don't even match!).

There uses of neopronouns are as baffling as the punctuation. Non-binary representation is great--representation matters--but what identity is actually being represented? Pronouns are supposed to be a grammatical reflection of one's identity right? So what distinguishes ae/aer from se/ser from e/em? Do these pronouns indicate some intermediate position on a m/f spectrum? Do they indicate some complete rejection of the gender binary? If so, what are the three different ways in which they reject it? Do they indicate a sort of selfish dickishness of identity vs. an empathetic confused identity vs. a mysterious mission-driven identity? We only get one character per pronoun, so there's not a lot there that we can use to infer what those non-binary identities are. So what do they mean? I did my due diligence. I looked up the pronouns. I tried to educate myself. Maybe they have some common meaning in the non-binary community that I'm simply unaware of. But all my googling yielded only instructions on how to pronounce them and conjugate them (wrong word, by the way--verbs conjugate, pronouns decline, but whatever); and the history of ae/aer, which was invented by an SF author in the 1920s to describe aliens who don't subscribe to human gender norms. Ok, so is the character who uses ae/aer intended to be an alien? Nope--based on the prose poem monstrosity ae is as human as the rest of us.

I only finished this because it was chosen for my book group. At first I thought I could have some fun by hate-reading it, but by the end it wasn't even that. Reviews are generally positive, if a bit confused, so I'm glad some people liked it, but wow, this was not for me.
Profile Image for Ariel (ariel_reads).
375 reviews26 followers
December 11, 2021
Ethereal and beautifully written sci-fi/speculative fiction. Stories within stories with pensive and engaging interludes. Overall a quick read but one that I loved to savor!
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