S. Qiouyi Lu’s richly imagined debut novella In The Watchful City sings an intricate symphony, brimming with cleverness and ache.
The city of Ora is in a state of chosen exile, freed from the clutches of the Skyland empire. In the wake of its collective trauma, Ora surveils its people and its visitors through nodes, extrasensory humans who can navigate the complex interconnected network called the Gleaming. Anima is one of the innermost nodes, and with this power comes the ability to borrow the bodies of living creatures and control them. Æ believes in Ora’s governance, and ær position as peacekeeper. But when a mysterious stranger with a qíjìtáng full of curious items crosses the border without Anima’s notice, the way æ see ær world will never be the same.
Once Vessel opens ser qíjìtáng, the novella branches into a kaleidoscopic mosaic of stories. Each item may seem nondescript—a pack of letters, a fish scale—and each story is intimate, centering on a few characters outside Ora’s borders. Yet each is a microcosm, the encompassing truths of the universe examined in the miniature and the personal, and together, they build to illustrate an epic narrative of decolonialism and diaspora, selfhood and self-determination, desire and power and grief. A man embarks on a quest to alleviate the guilt of his brother’s death. A revolution comes between lovers. A trans girl binds her feet and enters a competitive sporting competition. A fisher catches a mermaid, and must confront complex truths about her past and present.
As Anima experiences each exquisitely rendered narrative, æ shifts, as does ær understanding of the world, and so do we alongside ær. Ær relationship with the Gleaming, Ora, and ærself shifts too: what is the city’s duty to its people? What is a person’s duty to oneself, and to one another?
This novella explores the transformative nature of story, for the listener and the teller. It wrests with policing and empire, heritage and lineage, queer longing and selfhood, all delivered with nuanced narratives told in a dreamy, mesmerizing voice. The characters are memorable, but what lingers with me most is the sensation of the story overall, the atmosphere and the texture of it.
In the Watchful City is sci-fi decolonial biocyberpunk infused with the poetic, the mythic, the epic, with queer and nonbinary identities at the fore, and neopronouns used for all its central characters. It’s a cosmic, macrocosmic, microcosmic exploration of the limitations of power, the power of singularity and community, the liminal spaces between. Of the city as organism, story as organism, artifact as story. Of the fallibility of statehood and the mutability of the self. Of borders in conversation with multitudes, with simultaneity, with palimpsest. This is a nesting doll that devours the reader with its final close.
There’s a sort of enchantment within this book. This is severely clever and immersive speculative work, its creativity limned with the sheer elegance of Lu’s writing. It’s subversive and surprising, lyric and spare at once. It’s visual, visceral, and metaphysical. Lu wields form and genre beautifully, weaving verse and epistolary narratives into ær expansive world. Æ crafts a living tapestry, at times veering uncanny, and always transcendent and intimate. It’s also often heartbreaking. It feels purposefully so, like pressing on a wound to remember where it came from. Confronting the myriad pains of becoming and loss, to bask in connection and helplessness and shared grief, delivering a ferocity approaching catharsis. It’s written with such palpable care, tangible tenderness. Permission granted to mourn for those we don’t know. Compassion for the tension between self-consciousness and the vulnerability of wanting deeply to be known, especially when braided with the impossible appetite to fully know another person. Deconstructing the desire to control as a mechanism of safety, extending understanding for the helpless longing to fight back against the immutable bite of mortality. Yet it is always shot through with genuine, aching hope.
In the Watchful City is a sharp, glittering jewel, each mirrored facet shining brilliantly. Thrilling, tender, and alive with possibility, it is a deeply rewarding read, and I’m very excited to read ær future works. This is a tour de force that strengthens Lu’s position as one of the most skilled writers of the speculative genre.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.