In The Watchful City is a gorgeous, lush read that weaves stories inside stories to build a vivid, Asian-centric world. I loved how it disrupted expected western narrative structures to deliver something that feels transcendent. As the main character finds aer horizon expand through folkloric tales, the reader is drawn into the complex themes and worldbuilding. If you love the idea of beautiful prose and a futuristic, biocyberpunk world – this is the book for you.
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?
Anima is an extrasensory human who uses a network known as the Gleaming to take control of various animals and watch over the city of Ora’s citizens. Anima is content with the life ae have, taking great pride in aer role in keeping Ora safe. When a mysterious visitor arrives carrying a cabinet of objects from around the world, Anima finds aerself learning about the world beyond aer city’s borders. This knowledge leads to aer questioning about aer purpose.
What stood out to me about this book was how gorgeously it was written. If you enjoyed reads such as How You Lose The Time War, I think you’d find a similar joy in the mesmerising prose of In The Watchful City. This book has a very experimental, fragmented structure to it that won’t be for everyone. There’s a strong focus on stories within stories, weaving a folkloric feel through the book. Readers find their horizons expanding alongside Animas, and the joy of knowledge and history that ae feel parallels your own. Some tales are told in epistolary form, some in verse, all are mesmerising and poignant.
There are four short stories woven into In The Watchful City. All of these are Asian-centric but vary massively in content and tone. My two favourites were This Form I Hold Now, which features a fantasy sport and a trans girl character who binds her feet. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of foot binding being a gender euphoric process for this character. Foot binding is so often viewed through a very negative lens, so this was a piercing subversion of that trope. The other story I loved was As Dark As Hunger which features a fisher who finds a mermaid that looks exactly like her and is strongly linked to her past. The stories in In The Watchful City are both dark and hopeful – tackling themes of grief, joy, freedom, responsibility, gender, agency, and love. There is a fantastic amount of depth to this book; you could spend hours dissecting it and still stumble across more brilliant realisations. I am astounded by how much is packed into the pages.
In The Watchful City has fantastic, intricate worldbuilding borne from the use of these short stories. For a novella, the world feels so vibrant, rich, and full of life and history. You get impressions of fraught city relations, lush settings, intricate cultural traditions and differences. It’s a sparkling marvel of writing.
I would highly recommend this book – with its thoughtful, poignant tackling of difficult topics and the undercurrent of self-acceptance and joy – it touched my heart in ways I could never have expected.
CW: suicide, self-harm, violence
(Thanks to TorDotCom and Netgalley for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review)
S. Qiouyi Lu writes, translates, and edits between two coasts of the Pacific. Ær work has appeared in several award-winning venues. Æ edits the magazine Arsenika and runs microverses, a hub for tiny narratives. You can find out more about S. at ær website s.qiouyi.lu or on Twitter @sqiouyilu.
The Second Rebel is out on the 24th so there’s never been a better time to preorder!
I’d recommend checking out your local indie bookshop!