Review: ‘In The Watchful City’ by S. Qiouyi Lu

[ID: ‘Book Reviews’ and ‘Sabrina @ Notes From a Paper Plane Nomad’ in lilac and yellow text on a space-themed background.]
“White is the color of death… The color of pictures and clothes and bones left untended and eaten by the suns. But black?… Black is the color of life. When you dig into damp, dark dirt to plant a seed or look at the space between stars, wondering – that’s life.”


3.5/5 paper planes

What’s This Book About?

Genre: Speculative, science fiction (biocyberpunk)
Publication: 31 Aug 2021
Pages: 192 (paperback)

Synopsis: 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?

Content warnings (highlight to see): activities involving self-harm; blood, injury (including on-page foot binding), violence and death; loss of a loved one; occasional swearing; sex/sexual references; suicide (witnessed in one case; assisted suicide in another)

What I Thought:

‘In The Watchful City’ was really unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Lu has such a vivid style of writing and it was very immersive, dramatic with lovely metaphors and similes. Admittedly though, I sometimes did get a bit lost in the atmosphere of it all and struggled to follow what was actually happening.

The short stories are all incredibly intriguing – I think the ones told by Anima aerself are in verse? – and rather more compelling than the external framing story of Anima, Vessel and the city of Ora. I wonder if this is why when I sat down to read this, I’d blaze through it, but if I had to put it down, I found I wasn’t…really in the mood to pick it back up again? Even though I knew I had been enjoying it before. (I hope that makes sense.)

a man
who once told me
as if to console me
when i asked why i couldn’t transform like him,
why i had only one form
even though i felt many inside,
“you don’t need to be a kitsune to be someone else. that’s the easy part,”
he’d said,
taking my hand
turning the palm toward the sky
so he could trace my lifeline.
“what’s harder
is being yourself so completely
that there is still a ‘you’
no matter the form you hold.”

(You see what I mean about how beautiful the writing was?)

Standout stories were Anima’s backstory (from which the above quote was taken), the fish-scale story and the one told in letters and court documents. This epistolary one was particularly cool and mysterious, revealing just enough but still keeping lots tantalisingly shrouded. The first story was really good too! I also found the subversive story of a trans girl choosing to get her feet bound really interesting, with its emphasis on agency. I think it’s also noteworthy that the society she’s in is matriarchal (if I remember correctly).

I do feel like I wanted a bit more on Ora – based on the blurb I think I had the impression that there was some dystopian, authoritarian power that Anima might have to fight. I also found the ending slightly confusing and anti-climactic (perhaps partially because of that blurb-inspired preconception?). (Highlight for spoiler) Do people not die if their brain stem is severed? I probably missed something…

The world Lu has built is so rich and you can tell there’s so much more to it than what we see in this novella. I recommend having a look at aer website, especially if you enjoy seeing concept art and behind the scenes work! A highly original, powerfully written and thought-provoking debut.

Thank you to Tor and NetGalley for a copy for an honest review.

Thank you for reading! Have you read this or is it on your TBR? Are you a fan of speculative or sci-fi work? Short story collections? Let me know any thoughts below!

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