Bandits, Votaries, and Found Family: The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

I have a real THING about book titles. If I love it, I love it. If I hate it, well…I just might not read the book. There is no rhyme or reason to my whims about book titles. Some of my favourites are short, some are long, some are metaphorical or allegorical, some are literal. I’m all over the place.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a win, IMHO. Wordy, yes. But intriguing, evocative, alluring. Much better than the generic Sorcerer to the Crown, which was the first book of Zen Cho’s that I read, on the recommendation of my friend and co-podcaster, Elisha. And while I liked Sorcerer to the Crown okay, I truly loved The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water. My one complaint is that it was short, and I was sad when it ended (although the ending was perfection).

To sum up, it’s a long title for a short novel. But it works.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a novella billed as “a found family wuxia fantasy that combines the vibrancy of old school martial arts movies with characters drawn from the margins of history” (zencho.org). In my ignorance, I had to look up exactly what wuxia is (and also went down a rabbit hole of pronunciation guides for Mandarin characters—an approximation of how to pronounce this word is “woo-she-ah”). Wuxia, for the uninitiated (like me), is “a genre of Chinese literature featuring the lives and adventures of Chinese martial artists” (Leong). It has many tropes and themes common to its genre, including a historical setting, a chivalrous philosophy, a wandering hero, and it sometimes also has elements of mystery or romance. (If you are interested in learning more about wuxia, check out “What is Wuxia? A Beginner’s Guide to Chinese Kung-fu Novels, Movies, and TV Series” by Yong Kuan Leong, or the Wikipedia page on the genre.)

While wuxia is fascinating, I’m not sure that the genre would necessarily appeal to me, had it not been infused with Zen Cho’s addition of wonderful characters and sly dialogue, fantasy elements and queernormativity. Wuxia is traditionally not fantastical, however in this novella, one of the main characters, Guet Imm, is a votary of the Order of the Pure Moon, which is a religious order whose deity grants certain abilities that are beyond the ordinary.

Image from zencho.org

The story kicks off when the astonishingly good-looking bandit Lau Fung Cheong goes into a coffeehouse where Guet Imm is working as a server, and intervenes on her behalf (quite unnecessarily, as we will come to learn) when an irate customer accuses her of putting a jampi (spell) on him. Fung Cheong’s fellow bandit Tet Sang arrives soon thereafter, and tries to smooth things over, but by this point the coffeehouse is in shambles and Guet Imm has lost her job.

It’s clear that she is a nun, as she has the customary shaved head of the votary, however when she shows up at the bandits’ camp later and announces her intention to join them, they are not surprised to learn that she is adrift in the world, as her tokong (temple) has been destroyed and her fellow nuns killed. The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is set in a world that is, in Zen Cho’s words, “a fantasy version of Malaya during the Emergency” (a war fought between the colonial British rule and Malayan pro-independence guerrilla fighters).

From there, the novella unfolds into a funny, heartwarming, adventuresome tale that revolves around the deepening relationships between Guet Imm and the reluctant bandits, the revealing of secrets and buried histories, and the protection of the sacred relics of Guet Imm’s deity, which the bandits have set out to sell.

There are heavy topics interwoven into this deceptively light tale. Everyone in the group has witnessed horror of some kind, and the threat of being discovered by the agents of the Protectorate keeps them in constant motion and fear. Starvation is never very far away, and mosquitos and leeches are a daily nuisance. The interactions between Guet Imm and the bandits are fun and spirited, but they too have a core of darkness to them. As a lone female joining their group, the threat of rape hangs heavily in the dialogue of the dissatisfied men.

At the same time, there is a delightfully nonchalant attitude to queer relationships and to gender identity and fluidity in this world, which was unexpected and wonderful. And there is also a very sweet found family element that makes your heart warm for these characters who you will undoubtedly come to love.

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot—in such a slim book that would be unforgivable. But I hope that I have piqued your interest in this enchanting novella. I am now eagerly awaiting the release of Zen Cho’s next novel, Black Water Sister, which is due out soon.

Happy reading!

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