Genres: Queer Protagonists, Science Fantasy
Representation: Asian-coded cast, Nonbinary MCs who use neopronouns, disabled trans PoV character, sapphic PoV character, F/F or wlw
Published on: 31st August 2021
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?
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~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.