As an extrasensory human, Anima can connect to Ora’s living network known as the Gleaming. Through the Gleaming, æ monitors Ora’s citizens and prevents crimes. Æ has dedicated æ whole life to this duty, believing the city’s wellbeing is worth æ selflessness. But then Vessel arrives in Ora with her qíjìtáng, a case full of curiosities gathered from people Vessel has met on her travels, each item with its own unique story. As Vessel reveals those stories, Anima questions whether æ life of servitude to Ora is worth all the experiences æ is missing.
In the Watchful City is a story about the importance of experiences and the growth which comes from sharing them. As payment for hearing the tales, Anima must add æ own to the qíjìtáng. However, Anima is attached to the Gleaming through a node and æ experiences are limited to what æ has observed, not lived æself. Initially, Anima is uncomfortable at the deeply personal stories æ hears. They affect æ as æ interacts with Ora’s citizens until æ comes to rely on them to help æ find meaning in the world.
The present tense is used for the main narrative and the Asian-inspired, feminist object-stories from the qíjìtáng. The tense choice brings an immediacy to the stories, making these object-based tales as current as Anima’s. The only shift from this style occurs when Anima tells æ story. Æ uses past tense in a non-prose format that is more suitable to æ surreal life immersed in the Gleaming. The uneven line length and brackets within brackets had a musical quality, making Anima’s personal tale stand out from the others.
As In the Watchful City is a novella, there is a lack of detail which is the trade-off for the reduced length. I found the shorter stories more engaging than the overarching narrative because these were sharp snapshots into one aspect of a person’s life. We get enough context to understand that moment, appreciating the decisions made. But I had too many questions about Ora and its relationship with the wider world to fully engage. An example occurs early on. Anima tracks a fugitive who escapes in a zeppelin and greets a Skylander with affection. The idea of a citizen of Ora with a Skylander horrifies Anima, but we don’t know what happened between the two civilisations to cause æ reaction. For me, this incident did not have the same impact as the beautiful, heart-breaking narrative about the mermaid.
In the Watchful City explores what makes a fulfilling life. Is it our dedication to duty, work, or the experiences and decisions we make along the way? It is an ambitious work for its size. The object stories from the qíjìtáng give us a peek into the magic of another culture, which is always a worthwhile endeavour.