REVIEW: The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho
Zen Cho returns with a found family wuxia fantasy that combines the vibrancy of old school martial arts movies with characters drawn from the margins of history.
A bandit walks into a coffeehouse, and it all goes downhill from there. Guet Imm, a young votary of the Order of the Pure Moon, joins up with an eclectic group of thieves (whether they like it or not) in order to protect a sacred object, and finds herself in a far more complicated situation than she could have ever imagined.
Dear Ms. Cho,
I was captivated by the lovely cover for “Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water” and that as well as my enjoyment of “The Terracotta Bride” led me to ask to review it. When I was approved for an arc, I was delighted but also a teensy bit leery as I had also tried “Sorcerer to the Crown” which, alas, didn’t work for me. What would I think about this novella?
When I saw the page count, I initially felt that it wouldn’t take me long to zip through the story. Then I began and realized that I would need to concentrate and take things slowly as there was much I didn’t understand. You pay readers the compliment of not explaining every non-English word; indeed they are woven into sentences so well that the meanings are fairly clear. As to the background of the characters and story, there are times when the paucity of details frustrated me as well as a point when I felt as if I were drowning in an info-dump. I did attempt to do some online research to try and pin down a general time frame for the story, get a description of this war that figures so heavily in driving the plot, and understand the religion of the goddess of the Pure Moon. Either my skills are lacking or perhaps there just isn’t much information in Western media or you made much of this up. I don’t know. Finally I had to accept that I would remain a stranger in a strange land.
Descriptions of this novella as “found family” and lgbtq as well as gender fluid are accurate. Characters are bi-sexual, gay, transgender, heterosexual, and unstated. This is all just accepted as normal and status quo. The band of bandits have their tensions and flare-ups but they are fairly cohesive in a world of rebellion. Maybe they mainly stick together for lack of other options in their unstable time but they do see themselves as a group. There is a lot of time spent on how politics and violence have ripped the fabric of their society, leaving people to survive in any way they can.
As for the wuxia and fantasy? Well, frankly I didn’t see much until near the end. Hexes and witchcraft are mentioned but then in the next breath rational explanations are offered that could explain what little was – maybe? – there. On the other hand, there is a lot of information dumped on us about the religion – well, the book is named after it. The destruction of its tokongs and scattering of its surviving members is integral to the plot. But while all this is being discussed and told, precious little action takes place. Things did drag a bit even as the effect of trauma on religious faith was being explored.
I enjoyed plunging into a new world – even if at the end I was still confused about a lot of things. The two main characters are layered and complex. Unfortunately some of the bandit gang remained little more than blurs to me so perhaps a novella wasn’t the place for a “found family” trope. There were sections of the story that limped along, things I never understood, and the ending was startling, to say the least. And by startling I mean this is part of what I didn’t understand and boom – it just happened and then the story was over. Perhaps this is a function of my lack of knowledge but nonetheless it left me feeling lost. In the end, I wanted a bit more wuxia, a bit more action that I felt the blurb promised than this relationship focused story gave me. Yet the ending also might lead to a possible sequel. Now that I would be interested in. C+/B-