Review: The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

This week I read Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water. Coming in at just 155 pages, this little novella is a fun pick-me-up set in a grim low fantasy world reminiscent of pre-Industrial Malaysia. It centres on a group of bandits who accidentally adopt a votary of the titular Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water. Despite its war-torn setting, rife with burned-down tokongs and roving bandits, Cho’s trick of covering tragedy with stoicism and sparkling humour alleviates any deep feeling the book could cause.

Photo of the novella The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water surrounded by purple chrysanthemum and pink peony flowers, on a black velvet and white marble background. Wuxia fantasy review photo.

This really is low fantasy – most of the time the characters are thinking about how awful the food is, or how to buy more, better food, rather than engaging. It is described as a love letter to the wuxia genre (martial arts based fantasy) but there is little swordplay or supernatural here. The language comes off as a little jarring at times, which I suspect is a combination of the Malaysian-English dialect used and the abrupt sense of humour.

‘What kind of war is it, then?’ said Guet Imm. She looked like she wanted to hit Tet Sang. ‘A secret war? I’ve never heard of such a thing!’

The group’s leader appears like he should be the main character, crashing into the first scene in all his pretty-boy glory, but he soon fades into the background as we centre on Tet Sang, his second in command, and Guet Imm, the nun. The bandits are ostensibly on a mission to sell some black market rice – hidden behind this are the goods they’re actually smuggling, and hidden behind that is the reason this entire novella exists, which is to have Guet Imm snark at Tet Sang until he retaliates. There’s little room for heavy plot in a novella, but even so this feels a little light on the ground because it is not made up for by a deep dive of characterisation.

Photo of white and yellow sacks of different grains, pulses, and beans, including what looks like brown rice and couscous, although I'm not an expert so I can't be certain I'm afraid. Book review of The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water.
Hey man you want some basmati?

This is particularly noticeable considering the story is told from Tet Sang’s third person perspective, giving us a lead into his mind. There are suggestions throughout, however, that this was not Cho’s original plan. The reader is left in the dark of the bandits’ cargo until late into the novella, despite Tet Sang, as the second in command, obviously knowing of it. The reader actually discovers the truth along with Guet Imm, who I suspect may have been the original point of view, and who can definitely be considered the main character. This is not the only thing which is revealed halfway through the book. Tet Sang is also outed to Guet Imm and the reader as trans, through the bizarre line ‘Does everyone know you’re a woman?’

Brother, said Guet Imm. ‘Does everyone know you’re a woman?’

The story is based in a version of 1800s Malaysia, so modern language can’t necessarily be expected – except that it’s used copiously throughout the rest of the novel. In fact, Tet Sang’s gender identity isn’t even established, only that he uses he/him pronouns and wears masculine clothing. He, of course, does not owe the reader or his fellow characters any explanation. But to have this framed as a plot twist, when we are seeing the world from atop Tet Sang’s shoulder is, in my (cis) opinion, at best, shoddy writing in poor taste.

‘I live the life of a man, but my heart hasn’t changed from when I was a woman. This…is the body of a woman. But it carries the sins of a man.’

A perusal of Goodreads showed a lot of people liked the LGBTQ+ rep, with people mentioning non-binary rep, a lack of queerphobia and transphobia, and the fully accepting Order – and none of the dialogue around it is deliberately offensive – yet Tet Sung spends a later scene troubled because he is recognised by someone who then deadnames and misgenders him. It’s not transphobic to include this – these things do happen in real life – but the writing seems to lack a level of empathy which I think it could have really benefitted from. I wasn’t really sure what to say here, as I don’t want to come off as virtue signalling, and this is treated with the same attitude as the rest of the novel – which is to say, fairly crass humour. I don’t think that humour was earned in this case.

In conclusion, I enjoyed this book, but it’s not particularly wuxia, not particularly fantastical, and its trans rep leaves a lot to be desired. A lot of reviews mention how this novella was mis-marketed – perhaps if it were advertised as a fun adventure through an alternative 1800s Malaysia, it would be a different story.

An entertaining found-family tale of banditry across a war-torn Malaysian-inspired land.
I feel mean giving this two stars – but I gave This Is How You Lose The Time War three stars because although it was beautiful, it was not to my taste, and I can’t give this novella the same rating.

But is it gay?
There’s a general queer vibe, and light bi rep, but the eleventh-hour plot-twist trans rep leaves a lot to be desired.
For what is, in my (cis) opinion, great trans rep, read my review of Frankissstein here.

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