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 found In the Watchful City to be a whimsical, almost poetic account of the relationship between Anima et al, technology, and the humans that inhabit Ora. For a novella, I think this book does a great job of demonstrating how complicated and interconnected these interactions can be.
In less than 200 pages, author S. Qiouyi Lou manages to pack so much nuance into the narrative. The way Anima, Vessel, and Enigma interact with each other as well as the Gleaming speaks a lot about identity and everything that is wrapped up in it. It is easy to connect with Anima as aer worldview is expanded beyond the Gleaming by the artifacts and stories Vessel tells.
I have always loved the writing mechanism of using items as a jump off to tell stories, especially when they are things certain characters are unfamiliar with. Even though this is technology-heavy science fiction, it gives off vibes of old-time storytelling, sitting around a campfire and listening to outlandish tales. I enjoyed every one, and I thought it was a neat way for the reader to explore the world. That is where the connection with Anima comes in, who is also enthralled.
Another thing that always appeals to me is stories that are really unique, and In The Watchful City definitely falls into that category. I have not read anything quite like it. The prose did remind me of This is How You Lose the Time War, though. I think it was the way that the narrative flows, but also how it moves from one scene to the next. It is hard to describe. I guess I can say it felt almost like moving from dream to dream during sleep. It was just really enjoyable and atmospheric.
I did not rate it higher mainly because, while the book overall was a really nice read, I did not find the stories themselves very memorable. I can also say with confidence that is probably not the point of the book, either, but when I was finished I had trouble recalling specifics. That tells me they were not eventful enough to have made a huge impact on me. Still, I did enjoy the book as a whole.
If you are looking for a unique science fiction book (the author describes it as “biocyberpunk”) with Asian-inspired elements, In the Watchful City is a really good choice. I recommend it for those looking to read something unique.