S. Qiouyi Lu’s 2021 In the Watchful City is a speculative fiction novella.
The city-state of Ora attracts exiles from all over the Skylands. They form a diverse population whose common element is past trauma. Consequently, Ora takes security very seriously. Key to Ora’s security: the watchful gaze of guardians like Anima. In one sense, æ never leaves ær room. In another sense, Anima is omnipresent, using the Gleaming to project consciousness into the animals of Ora.
A visitor names Vessel catches Anima’s attention … or rather, an odd lacuna in the visitor’s documentation does. Access to Ora is strictly controlled. Everyone who passes through one of the city’s gates is logged. Vessel is a stranger to Ora, a visitor who must have entered Ora at some point. Yet there is no record of his entrance.
Ora has a straightforward policy where infiltrators are concerned: first offenders are executed. Presumably, recidivism is infrequent. Is Vessel an infiltrator? Or could he be something else? Lucky for Vessel that the answer is “something else.”
Vessel is a psychopomp, a being who exists in the limbo between living and death, He can travel from place to place across occult dimensions. Thus his ability to appear within a closed city without ever passing through one of its mundane entrances. He seems to have benign intent. He’s there to trade for stories.
Thank goodness for novellas; perfect for those days when my brain won’t stay focused for three or four hundred pages….
Oro is cautious because the floating lands that make up Skyland take a very dim view of alternate models of governance (which does not prevent it from acquiring one over the course of the narrative). Fleeing refugees are an implied criticism of the Skylands regime. As well, various factions within the floating lands are loosely united in disliking nonconformist Ora.
This is less a unified tale than a framework for shorter pieces. Although this structure is common in older fix-up novels, particularly those that incorporate previously published pieces, it is not one I have often encountered in novellas.
Perhaps due to the Scheherazade-like elements, this work straddles the boundary between fantasy and science fiction. As well, although the underpinning of the Gleaming might seem fantastic, the manner in which it is used to monitor the closed city in the name of security leans towards SFnal. Well, towards modern day panopticon states, save for the SFnal element that the watchers are benevolent rather than profit-seeking sociopaths,
Packing a surprising amount of narrative into a hundred or so pages, The Watchful City is a skillfully crafted, artful tale. Recommended.