In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu [Tor dot com publishing, 2021]
In his review, Sean has already pointed out what a big scope S. Qiouyi Lu's debut novella takes on, with juicy worldbuilding, a stories-within-stories structure and some big ideas for protagonist Anima to get ær head around. Anima lives in Ora, a city controlled by an extensive - and non-dystopian - surveillance network called The Gleaming. Anima is one of eight Nodes within The Gleaming, which means æ spends much of ær time out of ær body, possessing the minds of local animals or floating as light, responding to what is happening in the city and trying to maintain harmony and safety for the people within. The book switches between Anima's work to maintain Ora; Anima's past, conveyed through verse; and the stories æ is told by Vessel, a traveller with a qíjìtáng, or case of curiosities, about artefacts se carries. Through Vessel's stories, we learn more about the relationship between Ora and Skyland, adding extra nuance to our understanding of Ora and how it has developed itself while literally under the gaze of a more powerful, superiority-claiming neighbour. It also gives Lu an opportunity to switch gears and show off an impressive range: the poetry is one example of this, but in-depth description of a game of skycup, a fictional sports game which is introduced to the reader in a way that makes us immediately understand the rules, the stakes and the action within just a few pages? Now that's some serious skill.
In the Watchful City is an intentionally fragmented narrative, and it doesn't guide the reader to a big story-driven climax (there is a big moment towards the end of the novella, involving a completed suicide, but it's not a culmination of what has come before). Nor does it provide clear answers to the questions the novella raises, about identity and belonging both on the individual or collective scale: Anima ends ær time with Vessel with a different outlook on ær role as a Node and ær relationship with ær physical body, but on a broader scale, nothing has changed. Instead, what makes In the Watchful City cohere are its immaculate bio-cyberpunk vibes and its strong sense of place, and the roles of all the characters as part of that place (bonus: we get to read an Asian-inspired cyberpunk city that isn't just New York with some neon Chinese signs thrown in for set dressing!) It adds up to something that's all quite magical: I'm not quite sure how to summarise it, but In the Watchful City definitely left me feeling like I'd read a much longer book, and the world it creates will stick with me for a while to come.
Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn [Tor dot com publishing, 2021]
From one hard-to-capture but accomplished novella to another! Flowers for the Sea is an intensely visceral experience, one which makes us feel every moment of its protagonist's journey in a way that blends dreamlike horrors and psychological weirdness with a constant grounding in physical sensation. That protagonist, Iraxi is one of a group of survivors who have been at sea for years after their Kingdom flooded, an increasingly desperate voyage made even worse by attacks from supernatural creatures both above and below the water. Iraxi is pregnant, and appears to be the only person on the ship able to carry a child to term, but she's also despised for events in their former kingdom, and the combination of valuing her body while shunning her as a person means Iraxi is kept trapped below decks, in the squalor of a dying vessel. And, just to cap things off, it looks like her baby isn't exactly human.
We follow Iraxi through the navigation of her few remaining relationships on the ship - mostly defined by her pregnancy or sexuality - and through the experiences given to her by her supernatural child - and when I say "experiences", these sort of include the expected things like giving birth and nursing, but the line between Iraxi's physical reality and the world that her baby represents quickly becomes impossible to keep track of, and her baby quickly becomes a conduit for Iraxi to develop new perspectives on her situation and the possible ways out of it. When her journey of pain and isolation and frustration comes to a head, Iraxi finally gets the tools she needs to exert agency over the rest of the boat, and it's impossible not to root for the results even as it brings the story to a grim close. But then, its hard to imagine this ending any other type of way.
The Bone Way by Holly J. Underhill [Nyx Publishing, 2021]
I've been interested in The Bone Way since the pitch of "sapphic Orpheus and Eurydice retelling" reached me, and Holly J. Underhill's version puts two intriguing characters into a secondary world katabasis (side note: did you know "descent into the underworld" has a special word?) scenario. So we follow Teagan, a young woman dying from a slow, fatal poisoning, and her wife Cressidae, who insists on trying every avenue to save her. At the outset of the story, it's Cress who is trapped in the underworld, having left without Teagan to see if she can bargain for her wife's life from the Queen down there. Teagan wasn't willing to descend to save herself, but when it's Cress' life on the line, she's got more than enough courage to make the journey, and to try and negotiate the return - with a trick involved, of course.
There's lots of intriguing elements to The Bone Way: its quest, while quite episodic, is a lot of fun to watch, and the concept of this world's underworld being the result of a terrestrial ruler's decision has a lot of interesting implications. The main story is interspersed with flashbacks from earlier in Teagan and Cress' relationship, showing how they meet and grow close as well as the impact of Teagan's illness. The pair are, perhaps, a bit similar in personality, but it's satisfying to read two women who are both willing to be strong for each other, and the section after Teagan arrives in the underworld, when they're both frustrated and trying to communicate their pain to the other over their respective decisions, makes for a particularly interesting dynamic.
Where The Bone Way struggles is in turning the weight of the source myth into a story with equally weighty implications. It shouldn't be a spoiler to say that The Bone Way isn't a tragedy, and while it makes the journey from the underworld tense (I won't spoil how that's done), by midway through there are enough clues in the tone for a reader to know this isn't going to end with the kind of mistake poor Orphy made. With that cat out of the bag, The Bone Way's route to being a satisfying story is to wrap up its relationship story in a strong way, and it does - but Orpheus and Eurydice is such a powerful and heartbreaking tale, and especially if one has both Hadestown and the side story of Supergiant Games' Hades in one's recent cultural consciousness (as I do), the relatively easy emotional ride of The Bone Way suffers from the comparison. That's a shame, because this is a sweet novella that should be able to stand on its own charms - but its own premise makes that more difficult than it should be.