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?
I received a digital advanced readers copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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.
MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED
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.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: When a mysterious visitor enters a city with a collection of items and stories, a human linked to the consciousness and network of a bio-cyberpunk city and aer life will be changed forever.
Perfect for: Readers who enjoy speculative fiction; readers who enjoy their imaginations being challenged and expanded; readers who enjoy imaginative Asian-inspired stories.
Think twice if: You are not a science-fiction reader; you are not looking for a depthful read.
Genre: adult speculative fiction
Trigger/content warning: suicide