“City of a Thousand Feelings” by Anya Johanna DeNiro (novelette)
No Spoilers: The story unfolds across three distinct timelines (with a fun little bonus tucked in at the very end) from the point of view of a narrator who starts out in an army chasing a city. A city that she and all the others she’s with were kept out of. Denied. Some kicked out while others, like the narrator, were merely turned away from the gates. The implication is that they’ve been denied because they’re trans, because the city doesn’t want to recognize their emotions. But the city represents something more, too, not just validation of all their emotions but safety and security and acceptance. It means having a place to belong where they’re not at the mercy of the elements or the predators like the corpse-mongers who dwell nearby. They have gathered together to try and fight back as one against the city, to force their way in. It’s in this army that the narrator meets another trans woman, one whose name shifts from section to section. It’s through the narrator’s relationship with her, though, and their shared struggle, that they are able to make magic from their sorrow, and weapons from the tears. It’s a stunning read, at the same time able to be read fairly allegorically or slightly more literally, the plot and action solid and moving, the magic awesome, the mood and tone damaged and guarded but also resilient. It’s a powerful story, and one with a resounding finish that yes, made me tear up.
Keywords: Cities, Gates, Reanimation, Armies, Monsters, Trans MC, Gods
Review: At first glance I felt that the allegorical aspect of the story kind of jumped from the page. The first section, the world building, seemed immediately familiar to me. This army of trans women chasing admittance into a city that had denied them. Being invalidated by those who consider themselves the gatekeepers of emotion. It’s easy enough to speculate who the army and who the city and who the corpse-mongers “might be.” And as allegory the piece is satisfying and real, at least for me, and speaks to the ways that people, and especially trans people, are alienated and failed systemically. Yes, the city reads very well to me as a trans-exclusive femininity built on a toxic foundation and weaponized to try and stir violence against people who only want a place to belong. And the parallels to our world, our time, are strong, and flourish under careful attention to detail and a lyrical, strange world building, stark in many ways, a vast plain with only the city, the mountains of the corpse-mongers, and those outside. The piece comments on how age complicates identity, how hard it is to build generational momentum when generations of warriors are killed.
But with that, too, the story works primarily because it works on the character level. The narrator is not All Trans Women. She admits that freely, reminds the reader of it often enough. She is one person, a survivor by luck and by determination. By stubborn resolve and by an often-repressed but deep desire to find a home. The piece evolves how the narrator thinks of that, though. At first, the home is the one that has been denied her, in the city that doesn’t want her. She thinks to force her way in, to make them accept her. But that ends in disaster, in blood and violence. The enemies she fights are playing a layered game, not so simple as their brutality implies. And so her idea of home becomes a lonely tower, safe in that no one really bothers her, and people fear her. She becomes someone powerful, but never really does anything with that power except isolate herself. And eventually she finds that that’s not what she wants either.
And I just love where the story goes with that, how she’s able to use her pain and her grief as weapons, as defenses against a system and toxic structure that wants only her destruction and the destruction of everyone like her. And, ultimately, as a key. Not a key to gain entry into the city she began the story longing for. A key to open the door on the cage that she’s been trapped inside of. A cage that the city and the corpse-mongers were desperate that she not realize was there. Because in opening it, she is able to create, or help to create, a place where no one needs to hurt in the ways she did. A place where everyone is welcome. And that’s beautiful and warm and triumphant, despite the sort of bittersweet tone of the ending. But it’s magical and it’s amazing reading that sequence when she stands up to the force trying to break her and breaks it instead. It’s a hopeful piece, inspiring in that it shows someone give everything for something she never really gets to enjoy. And that so so many people don’t get to see. But that doesn’t make her struggle meaningless, or her effort and pain wasted. It’s a wonderful story, with a poetic style and an increasingly fleshed out second world fantasy feel and you should go out and buy in immediately!!!!