Lightheartedness and warm vibes to be found in ‘The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water’

Unrepentantly riotous and recommended by numerous notables including Ken Liu, ‘The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water‘ is written by Zen Cho and the perfect weekend light reading.

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.

Don’t forget, grab your copy here.