The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water (2020) is a surprisingly warmhearted fantasy novella set in a war-torn Asian country. It’s a queer take on wuxia, a time-honored genre of Chinese fiction based on heroes skilled in the martial arts, frequently in superhuman, fantastical ways (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or even Kung Fu Panda).
One day, in a small coffeehouse, a customer angrily accuses his waitress of using jampi witchcraft on him. The quarrel degenerates, a handsome bandit intervenes, dishes fly, daggers are pulled. In the aftermath, the waitress, Guet Imm, gets fired from her job and tracks down the bandit’s gang in their camp outside of town, and somehow convinces the bandits’ leader to let her join their group, promising help with cooking and cleaning. Guet Imm is a former nun with a shaved head from a burnt-out tokong. She’s not much of a cook … in fact, she can’t cook at all, nor will she sleep with the men (it would require a cleansing sacrifice to her goddess, in the form of chopping off their dicks). She does, however, manage to “part the men from their filthy clothes and launder them, in the teeth of the men’s appalled resistance.”
After a somewhat rocky start, Guet Imm becomes friends with one of the bandits, Tet Sang, who is the right-hand man of the handsome leader of the bandits. But trouble is brewing, and it has to do with something secret that the roving bandits are planning to sell, as well as personal secrets that some of the characters are keeping.
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is set in the pre-industrial era, in a period called the Protectorate, in an mythical Asian country that, according to Cho’s website, “draws on both the semi-mythic China of wuxia and the Malaya of the Emergency.” Zen Cho, a Chinese Malaysian author, frequently uses Malay names and words in this novella, like tokong (a Malay temple), jampi (incantation or spell) and pahala (reward). Though the setting is a mix of cultures, it feels cohesive and organic to the plot.
The story focuses on Guet Imm and Tet Sang. While Tet Sang may be concealing the bigger secrets, Guet Imm is, I think, the heart of the tale. She combines wide-eyed earnestness with a sarcastic sense of humor, and a serene and profound faith in her deity with a canny understanding of human nature. Cho’s dryly humorous prose lends itself well to the affectionate bickering between the characters.
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a pleasant read, more understated and tranquil than one might expect from a story about a group of bandits and stolen treasure that’s set in the midst of political turmoil. It’s more about interpersonal relationships and finding oneself and one’s family, than heart-pounding adventure and martial arts fighting, although there’s some of that as well. Zen Cho knows both wuxia traditions and Asian history and culture, and that shines through. I’d recommend it if you’re a fan of either wuxia or queer fantasy.