Review: In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu

Review: In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi LuIn the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Genres: biopunk, cyberpunk, fantasy, science fiction
Pages: 192
Published by Tordotcom on August 31, 2021
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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?

My Review:

I’m not sure I got what I expected with this novella, but then I’m also not sure what I expected. I certainly didn’t get that the point of the story was supposed to be the question asked at the end of the blurb. And none of that mattered, because once I got into the story I was hooked.

This is knd of a Scherezade meets a Collector and facilitates a rescue type of story. Or an escape. Or simply an opening of the eyes story. Or even, if you squint, opening the bars of the gilded cage and letting the bird out story. Or perhaps all of the above.

There are interesting political questions that lie behind, and under, and all around the story of Vessel telling stories to Anima about the artifacts collected in the cabinet that has been illegally smuggled into Ora, but there wasn’t quite enough of that part for this reader to hold onto.

Just enough to glimpse that the underlying story would be fascinating if we got it, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the stories, poems, vignettes and thought-pieces that Vessel relates to Anima.

But as much as I wondered about the world that produced this situation, that Anima is just one node in an ever-watchful neural network that observes and protects the city-state of Ora, what I loved were those little stories and the way that they opened Anima’s eyes to possibilities of other lives and other futures – not for the city but for Anima alone – if Anima is willing to cut Ærself off from the network that has sustained Ær whole life.

Escape Rating A-: As I said, I loved this one for the stories, but puzzled a bit – okay, a lot of bits – about the universe in which they are set. There’s a biopunk AND cyberpunk feel to the whole thing, as Anima is both an individual with individual thoughts and feelings AND a node on a city-wide network with the capacity for omnipresence if not any other deity-like powers.

The intrusion of the psychopomp Vessel both upsets and opens Anima’s closed world-view. Vessel is a smuggler, who is not supposed to be in Ora, and is not supposed to have been able to enter Ora without being caught.

For Anima, Vessel is both a puzzlement and a siren, luring Anima into viewing other lives and other worlds, allowing the person-who-is-a-node to see that there are other possible ways and places to live.

The individual stories range from heartbreakers to morality tales. (The story about the difference between raising the dead and resurrecting the dead is dark and heartbreaking and a gem all at the same time.) They are little jewels, revealing ever more facets to the universe of possibilities if only Anima is willing to reach out and grab them. And it’s only at the end that the reader realizes that opening Anima’s eyes was the point all along, and that THAT was the thread that linked all the stories. Pulling all of the “might have beens” into a thread of possibility for Anima – and for Vessel.

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