Survival, banditry, and a little magic

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

r/suggestmeabook: I want a wuxia-inspired novella about bandits trying to deal with the outcome of temple desecration in a fantasy mid-20th century Malay.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 155

Publisher: Tordotcom

From the publisher: 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.

This novella has plenty to love: combat, deceit, trans rep, a corner of history largely unknown in the US, and lots of little mysteries. The writing is lucid as mountain spring water, and the characters are intriguing where not sympathetic, and mostly sympathetic (if occasionally annoying).

It was of course safest to avoid bandits, but since most looked like ordinary people—indeed, if you were unlucky, some of them were your cousin, your uncle, your brother—this was not always possible.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

There’s the bandit with the pretty face, Lau Fung Cheung, also known as Ah Sang, who could be Aramis of The Three Musketeers in a different life. There’s the solid and dependable Tet Sang, Lau Fung Cheung’s second, who finds himself drawn into conflicts he’d prefer to avoid. Then there’s the woman they made the mistake of helping, Guet Imm, a former votary of the tokong of the Pure Moon, a temple which has been destroyed.

Either she was on of those happy persons whose periods gave them little trouble, or her stoicism over her blistered feet extended to cramps and cold sweats.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The novel is based on the Emergency, a conflict in the former Malay Colony of Britain, which was perceived as a communist insurrection by the Chinese ethnic population in the postwar period (1948-1960) by the British colonial powers. Taking a chapter from Stalin, the British relocated approximately one million Chinese “squatters” who lived on the fringes of the jungle and were supporting the insurrectionists, who saw themselves as a liberation army. In most of the British official summaries found by a quick Google search, the relocation was benign, giving them housing and infrastructure. The truth is more complex: these “squatters” were first moved to emptied prisons and, when those grew too full, to concentration and detention camps. It was only when the British realized this was not going to be a workable solution (and the more economically advantaged ethnic Chinese began to unite to protect the squatters), that the new villages were created.

“Of course I knew there were problems. But even when I went to town and got a job, nobody talked about a war.”

“Nobody talks about it. It’s not that kind of war.”

“What kind of war is it, then?”

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The spark was racially motivated: the British were about to offer full citizenship to the Chinese Malays, but there was a popular backlash from the rest of the Malay population, and the British retracted the offer. This lead to members of the Chinese population responding more violently. This reaction didn’t come around as quickly as it sounds from this context: the Chinese in Malay had dealt with Chinese exclusion laws much like those in the US, from persecution during the Japanese occupation, and lack of adequate recourse to justice before and after the Japanese took Malay.

A bespectacled man with slick hair and alert lidless eyes of a gecko, he seemed cleanly and decent, like a clerk. At the same time, there was something off-putting about him—one would not be surprised to hear that he had embezzled funds or slapped his mother-in-law.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

At any rate, this novella of a fantasy Malay during that time partakes of aspects of the actual history. Cho uses the term “Tang” to refer to the ethnic Chinese (although it’s actually a dynasty), and it’s clear throughout the story that these are a people being singled out for persecution. The protagonists are not guerrillas; they are just displaced poor people who ran out of options for anything better.

You cannot stay rich in times like these without eating sin. If you don’t dare to do wrong, then you will suffer.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

The attitude toward trans people is refreshing. It appears that during this period, transgender people were generally accepted in Malay; it wasn’t until a Muslim resurgence in the 1980s that attitudes started to change. A culture with matter-of-fact acceptance and lack of stigma is a pleasure to imagine yourself into.

Tet Sang had known members of her Order who had been dedicated to the Pure Moon at a young age but then decided they could not endure to be called sister. They had departed to join male orders or start other lives. Conversely, he had no doubt that some of the Pure Moon’s nuns had lived as men before they joined her Order. Once they entered the deity’s light, no one was particularly interested in what they had been before.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

Possible spoiler here forward–no specifics, but you might find it to be one: My only real complaint about the novella is the ending; it feels as though it simply stops, rather than having a conclusion. It’s something I like about fiction; unlike real life, resolutions are almost always possible. Like most readers, an ending I dislike tends to color my opinion of the entire story. Cho has said she may return to these characters; I hope this ends up as a first part of a longer story, but even so, I’d have liked a better resting place.

He knew how dangerous it could be to assume that either women or mystics were harmless.

Zen Cho, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

All in all, it’s a book I recommend, although be warned that you may be ready to turn the last page to another chapter, and find that you’ve been left in the Malay jungle to wonder.

Want a different take? Check out Peat Long’s review of Zen Cho’s lovely book.