ARC received from the publisher, Tor.com, in exchange for an honest review.
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, wuxia, novella, Asian-inspired
Published: 23 June 2020 by Tor.com Publishing
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a Malaysian-based fantasy with a semi-wuxia flavour that was an absolutely delightful slice of home.
When I first discovered that Zen Cho is a London-based Malaysian Chinese author, I was keen to read to her work. I’ve since read and enjoyed Sorceror to the Crown, a Regency-era fantasy of manners, and noticed that she has incorporated some elements of her home country. Not a lot but enough to make me appreciate an author that remains proud of her roots regardless of where she is.
When I saw the cover of The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, I actually expected something more East Asian as it has a clear wuxia influence. Imagine my surprise when I realised even from the very first chapter how very Malaysian the setting was. Aside from the setting of a kopitiam – a Straits Chinese-styled coffeeshop – in the first scene, with all the beverage ads on the walls (umbra juice and soya bean drink existing side-by-side was a dead giveaway), the dialogue was Malaysian through and through. After a couple of chapters, the notion started to form that this story was set during the days of the guerilla warfare which started in pre-Independence Malaya. Sure enough, I checked Cho’s blog which stated that the novella is “a tale of nuns and bandits whose setting draws on both the semi-mythic China of wuxia and the Malaya of the Emergency.” A historical note here, Singapore was still part of Malaya at that time.
Throughout my entire time reading the novella, I couldn’t hold on to my glee at the Malaysian-ness seeping through some of the words used and the dialogue – some notable inflections include “Aiyah” and “Where got?” and terms like “Close one eye” and “I know you won’t do me like that, brother!” – as well as some recognisable locations like Sg Tombak (with a name change), Permatang Timbul and Kempas. I laughed so hard in one scene when a mata, i.e. policeman, groaned out a very vulgar curse while trying to apprehend the main characters. Even the manner of address for family or very close friends (Ah Sang for Tet Sang, Ah Lau for Lau Fung Cheong) is the Malaysian way. The names of the other bandits in Fung Cheong’s group – Ah Hin, Ah Boon, Ah Yee and Ah Wing – are forms of affectionate address comprising one part of their name which could either come from a surname or first name. In this same respect, only my family members ever called me Ah Sim.
The wuxia influence comes through the mythological and philosophical aspects of the Order of the Pure Moon and the worship of its deity. There was also a reference to Nezha, the boy god from Chinese mythology. Those coming into this novella expecting wuxia martial arts action will be disappointed as there was not much of it. There were a few cool scenes nonetheless which made this more fantasy than historical fiction.
This was a tale of found family and holding on to one’s identity in spite of change, told mainly through the perspective of Tet Sang – a bandit in Lau Fung Cheong’s group who appears to have something to hide about his past. I would even venture to say that that there wasn’t much of a plot except to relate how the addition of Guet Imm, a votary of the Order of Pure Moon, into Fung Cheong’s group caused an upheaval that no one expected – least of all, for both Guet Imm and Tet Sang. In short, this is a character-driven story but one that moves along at a good clip and peppered with really funny dialogue and banter between the bandits and a nun.
The ending felt a bit abrupt although fitting for the tale to be told for now. In any case, I found that given the format, very few novellas wrap things up as neatly as a full-length novel could. But for what’s it worth, I was entertained and enjoyed reading this delightfully Malaysian novella. I could be biased. No, scrap that, I am biased being such a deprived own-voices reader in the fantasy genre. So I would really recommend that readers looking for diversity and understanding other cultures give this novella a shot. Look, it’s less than 200 pages after all. And if you come across a word you don’t understand, just Google it – it exists in the context of this little country in the South East Asian region of the world.