Face slapping, talking dragons, and an old men harem abound in SOTR. This is the one that started it all, the one that saw etvo pivot from a career in finance to translating full time. 4.5 years, 7M characters, and 5M+ views a month.
Need a new read to wind down your Sunday? Come relive your xianxia childhood!
Full disclosure: Zen ran a giveaway and sent me a copy of the book in early 2020, upon which I decided to write a review for it. Then 2020 was cancelled, but still, I do deeply apologize for taking such an unholy amount of time to get to things. In the jianghu, one’s word is one’s bond, so fulfilling it late rather sucks. Onwards ho to the book!
Zen describes Pure Moon as ‘a found family wuxia fantasy novella featuring bandits and nuns and lots of dumb jokes’, and it really delivers on the humor and relationships between characters. These two highlights are the greatest standouts for me after putting down the book.
A quick word, caveats, and all that
A quick note on who I am and therefore where my comments come from. I’m a wuxia/xianxia/period drama translator and have been in this translation scene for almost five years. I focus mostly on web serials, which results in me handling 8+ million Chinese characters throughout my tenure. Hence, my reviews might be slightly more technical than most. You’re more than welcome to throw down the gauntlet and pick at my works here.
Special shout out to the gorgeous cover art by Sija Hong — seriously, covers sell books and I’d definitely pick this up in a bookstore. And the lettering by Sarah J. Coleman! Having weighed in on covers for my own translations… it’s devilishly hard to put together something to represents the book, catches eyeballs, and have it all come together in a cohesive final product. What a fantastic presentation.
Wuxia can oftentimes be grandiose and epic, full of suffering and personal growth that span through an overarching theme of revenge and justice. Lovers are brutally separated, family members die in front of each other, and nations are ripped asunder. …but sometimes, we just want to turn off the spigot of angst (perhaps especially so in 2020), and talk about how nice someone’s ass is. (Could we possibly get insert art featuring Ah Kheng and his marvelous backside?)
The humor jumps off the pages and quite frankly, I enjoyed all of it. Everything runs together smoothly enough to keep the pages turning. Characters really come to life — whether through obvious, slapstick moments, or sarcastic twists at the end that keep readers on the edge of their seats. Will she, won’t she? Oh wait, she was serious this time?
Apart from cracking a good joke, I also really enjoy Zen’s descriptive prose. Instead of a bland cast of cohorts with the same recycled personality traits, I could easily recall names of the supporting characters, and for the visual learners among us, it was easy to imagine how scenes of banter would play out on the small screen.
If the first bandit was a porcelain vase, this one was an everyday clay vessel, suitable for holding water or budu or rice wine, as the occasion demanded.
“You can choose to stop fighting, I can stop you. It’s up to you.” [said the clay-vessel bandit]
“Eat shit, bastard!”
As is often the case with novellas, I wished the book was longer. Since it had limited real estate to work with, we barely got enough hints of world-building and a silent war that would’ve fleshed Pure Moon out into a full-fledged wuxia. I’m never a fan of telling over showing, but the web of connections between various factions before and after the war might’ve benefitted from a bit more telling if space hadn’t been an issue.
One thing that was surprising not emphasized on the book synopsis was the fact that this is a solid offering for queer fiction. Or perhaps this was a purposeful marketing decision, with the emphasis placed on where Zen wished it to be. It’s quite refreshing to see LGBT+ relationships treated matter-of-factly and to not see universal condemnation or prosecution. Lovers of period drama danmei will be absolutely delighted by some of the relationships in the book.
For my book reviews, I generally try to find one aspect I disliked so as to not sound like an advertorial for all of them. What I liked about Pure Moon was ironically, also what I disliked about it.
Zen is Malaysian and as such, her works reflect that influence. Fantastic, brilliant, and we need more cultural representation in literature.
I was also very confused at times :D.
I’m not entirely sure what soya bean is, but figured it was probably something like soy milk. Definitely didn’t know what umbra juice or mata was, so by the time jampi rolled around, I also mentally skipped over it, then quickly backtracked when the next few pages indicated it was relevant to the plot.
In fact, “what time period are we in?” was the dominant question on my mind during the first twenty or so pages. Wuxia tends to be set in romanticized/stylized ancient China, which was what I initially thought was the time period, but the use of ‘coffeeshop’ and the appearance of guns made me wonder if we were more modern than not. Then I recalled the mention of Tang people, but was tugged back to modern times when the usage of ‘contractor’ cropped up. I Googled ‘jampi’, which put a certain image in my mind, but the use of ‘hexing’ sent me to the west and wart-nosed witches cackling over bubbling cauldrons.
Sometimes, my mental voice was tripped up by the abrupt transitions between Malay English and conventional English. Formal English with no contractions could be found in the beginning of the book, characters then adopted contractions, and ultimately burst out with Malay English in charged moments. For readers that really care about period relevancy and consistency, this might be an adjustment to make to expectations before plunging in.
I generally end my reviews with a recommendation to the appropriate audiences, but wasn’t sure how I’d tackle that question this time. Apart from those looking for action-packed queer fiction, a perfect target audience wasn’t immediately forthcoming. Someone familiar with Malay English or culture? Or someone completely new to the genre since they’d treat all unfamiliar concepts the same as just something to do with this foreign genre? But then, wouldn’t it be such a shame if folks just glossed over the new terms they encountered?
I wouldn’t recommend Pure Moon to those looking for clashes in the wulin or wandering around with the xia spirit, however. You’ll find yourselves tantalized, but ultimately the novella veered more on the slice-of-life side with a very healthy dose of adventuring.
Eventually, the opener for the review came to me: in my opinion, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is the perfect light read for a stroll in the park or a socially distanced visit. Let us sprinkle some notes of warmth, unexpected relationship twists, and attempts at reforming bandits into the end of 2020.
HOLY GUACAMOLE there are some major spoilers ahead for the novel Necropolis Immortal. Please come check this Spark Notes version out only after you finish a tomb arc and find yourself still confused as all hell.
Seriously, a lot of NECRO is built on mystery and intrigue, you’d be killing so much of the fun for yourself if you read ahead to everything.
There are INSANE SPOILERS in the summaries ahead.
Third time’s the charm, there are spoilers spoilers spoilers ahead. This summary is to enhance reading enjoyment of NECRO. I will delete it if it turns out to be detrimental instead.
Mountain contains a Crouching Black Tortoise feng shui layout. False entrance in the south (Black Tortoise’s rear). Lu Yun digs a thieves’ tunnel in the north to the real entrance, sees through a fake tomb facade.
First run-in with the Exalted Immortal Sect who are trying to take the Panorama of Clarity. First encounter with taboo art of soul sacrifice.
Undead encountered: Zombies, corpse flies, stone sculpture Treasure obtained: Panorama of Clarity Servant obtained: Pill Fairy Yuying (envoy), Ge Long (not an envoy)
Myriad Formation Summit (chapters 20-55)
The formations outside the mountain are a distraction, the real entrance is to be found after a maze. Inside the tomb, they encounter the bronze outer-coffin, a Ninefilia Specter Fostering formation (Yueshen), the entire ancient city that the mountain landed on, a layout of certain death that reveals Qing Han’s gender, realize they’re in a corpse coffin, bump into Miao who leads them past the living layout of the Duality of Tiger and Dragon, and finally, they run into Feinie’s resting place when trying to escape the undead hag.
LY realizes that the mountain is actually a huge burial mound (ch 22). A burial mound is much more humble than a tomb, it’s basically a pile of dirt. A tomb is a fancy underground palace (ch 23). It’s a very big insult to the dead if they’re buried in a mound when they deserve a tomb.
They bump into Yueshen (ch 30), the bloodcorpse (ch 33), and realize they’ve been inside a huge body all along (ch 32). LY realizes that the size ratio of dead:burial mound is off (ch 38) — the burial mound needs to be bigger to properly house the body they’re walking in.
Tying it all together: Yueshen was killed so that her corpse could be made into the coffin for a rando, and a tomb was built around the dead + corpse coffin. Seeking revenge, her friends and family destroy the tomb, downgrade it into a burial mound to insult the rando, and set up the Duality of Dragon and Tiger layout so the rando would never find peace. Their actions cause rando’s resentment and fury to fester so that it expands Yueshen’s body so massively that Lu Yun can walk around in it.
Yueshen’s friends also lovingly set up a resurrection layout to bring her soul soul back to life, and set up a formation (ch 33) to create a new body for her. However, another rando came in and messed up the resurrection layout, turning Yueshen into a ghost and the new body into the bloodcorpse.
Undead encountered: Bloodcorpses, corpsefish, ghostface maggots, corpse flies, undead hag Treasure obtained: Portrait of Emptiness, Formation Orb, bronze outer-coffin Servant obtained: Yueshen (immortal ghost), Dragon Prince and Tiger Prince (layout manifestations), Miao (fox spirit), Feinie – former Dusk city lord and formation master (envoy)
Tomb for the Living (chapters 62-91)
Lu Yun rushes to stop the Dusk River Sacrament to save Wanfeng. Setting foot into the river activates a formation, which brings forth an island. Upon completion of the ritual, the island sinks into the river, bringing them into an abyss littered with corpses of ancient divines.
The Dusk River Palace is at the bottom of the river bed, where a false river god resides. The corpse of the previous river god is also there (Xuanxi), and its lingering will comes back to life to protect the party. After being made an envoy, Xuanxi reveals that her mistress, the dragon princess, is the resident of the bronze outer-coffin.
Wayfarer shows up to save them from a divine obsession, but the group then encounters Eyefarer bound on the Walter Alter. They manage to leave him still trapped on the alter and return to the surface.
Undead encountered: corpsefish, zombie king, ghouls, zombies Treasure obtained: Yin Formation Orb, Path of Ingress (imitation) Servant obtained: Diexi (ally, not a servant), Xuanxi – previous Dusk river god (envoy)
Lu Yun’s envoys as of chapter 800, in order of chronology.
Yuying – Pill Fairy and favors white robes. Wields the Emerald Mistfire (green), Lucent Voidfire (blue), Daevic Skyfire (bright yellow). Lovers with Wayfarer in life.
Feinie – Formation King and former Duskwater City Lord. Favors black robes and often blows herself up in service to Lu Yun.
Xuanxi – former Dusk River God, mermaid. Crystal-blue energy and specializes in talismans.
Aoxue – blood dragon adept at close-body combat.
Huangqing – blood phoenix skilled at refining items.
Cangyin – patriarch of the water qilins. Later made into a blood qilin through experimentation from Su Xiaoxiao and Xingzi.
Su Xiaoxiao – Doctor Poison, Qi Hai’s (banished) disciple. Inky-green energy.
Xingzi – shaman princess of the Star Shaman Tribe.
Luli – blood turtle. Fully melded with her blood turtle self in her past life and wreaked untold destruction.
Zhaoqing – daughter of the immortal emperor, found in the lineal tomb at the end of the Path of the Dead
Lu Yun’s envoy lineup is complete at 10 envoys, whereupon they turn into the 10 Yama Kings.
Necropolis Immortal blends two particularly Chinese genres: xianxia, and tomb raiding. It’s not quite the tomb raiding one associates with Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, as Etvo explains in our interview.
There will be a scene and a character category in which people are free to draw any of their favorite scenes and characters. Perhaps it’s when Pang Xiao first stole over the roof to peek on Qin Yining, or when the trampress got what she deserved. Maybe you’re a fan of best dad Qin Huaiyuan, or you think there’s some redeeming factors in Qin Huining. Whatever it is, show off your talents to the world and make ROS come to life!
Submissions are open here and prizes will be given for the first, second, and third places decided by moi and others, as well as a community fan favorite through voting. First place wins $100, second wins $75, third wins $50, and community vote wins $25.
Feng shui: Chinese geomancy, or the philosophy of striking a balance between the natural world and one’s living spaces and work environment. It’s a pseudo-science originating from ancient China and is classified as physiognomy—observation of appearances through formulas and calculations. The characters translate literally to wind-water.
Please note that this article is a very generic primer meant for readers of Chinese fantasy. It is in no way exhaustive or comprehensive in scope. Thank you Wikipedia for compiling all this information!
The Yangshao (5000-3000 BC) and Hongshan (4700-2900 BC) cultures in ancient China record the earliest use of feng shui. Until the magnetic compass was invented 3,500 years after this use of this system, feng shui relied on astronomy to find correlations between humans and the universe. It’s widely used to orient buildings—often spiritually significant structures such as tombs, but also residences and other buildings—in an auspicious manner.
The astronomical history of feng shui is evident in the development of its instruments and techniques. Chinese used circumpolar stars to determine the north–south axis of settlements, and would use angles of the setting and rising sun to determine north.
The oldest examples of feng shui instruments are liuren astrolabes, also called shi. These are lacquered, two-sided boards with astronomical sight lines. The earliest examples of liuren astrolabes were found in tombs that date between 278 BC and 209 BC.
Traditional feng shui instruments now are the luopan compass and the feng shui ruler. Since the luopan‘s invention, its use has been required in direction finding. Feng shui formulas are embedded in ~40 concentric rings on the surface, which is known as the heaven dial. The circular metal or wooden heaven dial typically sits on a wooden base known as the earth plate. The heaven dial rotates freely on the earth plate. Red wires that crosses the earth plate and heaven dial at 90-degree angles is the Heaven Center Cross Line, or Red Cross Grid Line. This line is used to find the direction and note position on the rings.
Qi, Polarity, and the Bagua
Qi is a positive or negative life force that plays an essential role in feng shui. When it comes to tombs, the goal of feng shui is to take advantage of vital qi by appropriate layouts of graves and buildings. Some people destroyed the graveyards of enemies to weaken their qi.
Polarity is what wuxia/xianxia readers will know as yin and yang. The two forces balance and counter each other; one pushes and the other pulls. The polarity theory and the five elements (metal, wood, earth, fire, water) are also linked to astronomical observation of sunspots.
While the goal of Chinese medicine is to balance yin and yang in the body, the goal of feng shui is described as aligning a city, site, building, or object with yin-yang force fields.
Bagua is known as the Eight Trigrams and are a significant part of feng shui. Each trigram is a symbol used in Taoistcosmology represent the fundamental principles of reality and consists of either broken or unbroken lines. The trigrams are also related to the five elements.
There are many schools of thought in feng shui, also known as ‘branches’. The two main branches are the Form Branch and Compass Branch.
The Form Branch is the oldest branch of feng shui and originally concerned with the location and orientation of tombs (yin houses), then progressed to the consideration of homes (yang houses). The “form” in Form branch refers to the shape of the environment, such as mountains, rivers, plateaus, buildings, and general surroundings. It analyzes the shape of the land and flow of wind and water to find a place with ideal qi.
The Compass branch is a collection of more recent feng shui techniques based on the eight cardinal directions, each of which is said to have unique qi. It uses the luopan to determine direction.
There is no contemporary agreement which of the traditional branches is most correct. Therefore, modern practitioners of feng shui generally draw from multiple branches.
Feng Shui in Day-to-Day Life
For normal, everyday folk who aren’t practitioners, feng shui exhibits itself as a list of do’s and don’t’s for setting up your home and workspace. Personally, I call it fancy common sense, or rules that help people get into a good mental space. From stuff like placement of certain objects to not installing the stove right next to the sink, there’s varying degrees of intensity that one can take this to.
For instance, when looking for a new apartment rental, I skipped over any units with front doors directly in front of another door. In feng shui, having doors open directly into each other means good fortune will flow out of your house. Or, in practical usage, it’s really annoying to have a major egress such as the elevator right in front of your front door. Apartment living doesn’t exactly have great soundproofing or smell-blocking for trash.
One shouldn’t have a mirror facing the bed—sound familiar from one of NECRO’s layouts in chapter one? Not only is it bad feng shui, but honestly, I might just scare the bejeezus out of myself when getting up at night.
The spot at a 45 degree angle to the front door is where fortune gathers in the house, so generally we place something that collects wealth in that spot. Or, who wants to see a load of trash/dirty laundry as soon as they come in the front door? Best first impression ever. Though, I’d probably want to leave cookies and milk there if I were in the west. Santa would maybe skip the coal and give me presents instead?
Feng shui can also factor into naming—people might go to a feng shui master to get a second opinion on what name will best further their career. Celebrities do this a lot, as having an appropriate name is very important to building name recognition. Similar to how immigrants might change their names upon arrival in their new country, folks want to change their relationship with their surroundings.
But really, these are nice guidelines and a belief system that only impacts you if you buy into it, much like religion or the Tooth Fairy. As I once saw on a talk show, “City apartments are only yea-big! If you want to have good feng shui in everything, then go pitch a tent in a field because nothing’s ever going to be perfect.”
Honestly, there’s probably a feng shui master out there who will somehow identify bad feng shui in a field as well.
Back to NECRO and Comparisons to Western Culture
In modern days, feng shui is something that permeates many aspects of Chinese culture, just like avoidance of black cats and the number 13 in American culture. Or when it comes to nuptials, bridal/baby showers/gender reveal parties or the wedding tradition of “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue”. It seems a common refrain that all cultures have something that just makes sense to people living and breathing it, but quite foreign to those not a part of it.
If feng shui still seems hokey to you, that’s perfectly fine too! For our purposes, it’s one of them cultural things that’s been turned into a power system in a fantasy novel. And really, that’s what it is in NECRO.
As Lu Yun says in chapter 12, formations and feng shui are two sides of the same coin. Formations are the yang side, and feng shui the yin. To utilize the full potential of a formation, imbuing it with the qi of heaven and earth is necessary. However, there’s no such qi on Earth. That’s why layouts there can only demonstrate the feng shui side of things, but not the power of a formation.
TL;DR Frankly, this article was inspired by numerous instances of feng shui being called bullshit/crap/crazy in NECRO comments, reviews, and elsewhere. This write-up first originated as the most massive translator thought I’ve ever had at the end of a chapter, and continued reaction gave birth to this article. I hope it peels back some of the mysticism!
In NECRO’s world of immortals, formations and feng shui are two sides of the same coin. Formations are the yang side, and feng shui the yin. To tap into the full potential of a formation, the qi of heaven and earth is required. However, there’s no qi on Earth. Therefore, we’re left with only the trappings of formations and the theory principles behind it. Hence, feng shui.
For an in-depth look at the world of web novels, please check out the MoonQuill Podcast, of which I’m a regular cast member of. Wuxia Selections is a special feature selection of the podcast hosted by yours truly, in which I dive in-depth on what is wuxia, xianxia, and the like.
Running through the weekend of May 16 is a Twitter Q&A session for Wandering Sparrows/譯派湖燕/译派湖燕: a Chinese diaspora women translators group founded by Yilin Wang. Get to know the group and our takes on how we approach work!
— Yilin Wang (she/they) @Flights of Foundry, 5/16-17 (@yilinwriter) May 17, 2020
And finally, Necropolis Immortal reading on Sunday, May 17 @ 11pm GMT+8/5pm GMT+2/11am US EST/8am US PST on the Wuxiaworld Discord server. A Q&A will follow, in which I’ll try my darndest not to give any spoilers!
A hundred thousand years ago, there was a great war between cultivators. Immortals fell by the tens of thousands, the path of cultivation itself was severed, and after the dust settled, tombs forested the world.
A hundred thousand years after the last legend faded, Lu Yun, commandant of tomb raiders, descends upon the world. Armed with the Tome of Life and Death, he has some burning questions to answer.
“This isn’t how you raid a tomb!” Lu Yun smirked at the cultivators frantically scurrying about the ancient tomb. “Do you want me to teach you?”