Book Review: “The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water” by Zen Cho

After watching this review, I was just curious enough about “The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water” by Zen Cho that I decided to read it myself. So what did *I* think?

What Is This Novella About?

In Malaysia, there is a group of Tang (i.e. Chinese-Malaysian) ‘bandits’ running around, trying to survive as the authoritarian government oppresses Tang people. After they rescue a nun at a coffeeshop from sexual harassment, the nun insists on joining them as they travel to deliver their, um, “black market rice”.

Can you be more helpful in telling me what the Novella is about?

Okay. When I wrote this book review, I used Libbie Hawker’s formula for writing book blurbs (which I think is helpful for writing spoiler-free summaries in book reviews, not just selling books).

That formula (with answers for “The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water” is) :

Who is the main character? Tet Sang

What do they want? To stay alive and to stay with the group of bandits. Except, near the end (as in, within the last 10% of the novella) it turns out that Tet Sang wants something different that came out of the blue for me.

What or who stands in their way? The bandits are wanted men and the Protectorate’s people are hunting them.

What will they do, or what must they do, in order to get what they want? Safely deliver the goods and get paid.

What is at stake if they fail? They get captured or not paid enough money to survive as a group.

That does not sound like such a bad story.

It doesn’t, but I think Libbie Hawker’s formula tends to flatter stories (probably because it’s supposed to sell books). One of the problems is that it’s not actually that hard for the bandits to evade the Protectorate’s people. Even when their plan falls apart, somebody gives them good advice, and all they have to do to get the money they need and avoid capture is to follow the advice.

Is following the advice hard?

No, following the advice is totally doable.

I mean, Tet Sang’s turnaround near the end of the story could have been the result of character change/growth if an actual character arc were demonstrated in the story, but it’s not, and thus unearned.

In the beginning, I had a lot of trouble keeping the characters straight. I think it’s because some of the characters were not properly introduced, so I did not get a firm sense of who they were until way too late in the story. And, generally, this story felt like a series of things which happen, not something with plot/character arcs.

And a big problem is that the novella is way too stingy with information. It has plot derail #1 and plot derail #3 on this list. A lot of reviews say they can’t reveal much about the story without spoiling; that’s in part because the plot is so thin, but also because too much is held back from the reader for too long.

For example, because the truth about the “black market rice” was held back so long, I did not know why it was important, therefore I did not particularly care about it or feel much suspense over whether the secret will be revealed. If, instead, it had been revealed early on that “black market rice” is actually Princess Elizabeth of England and her very young son Prince Philip traveling through Malaysia incognito (that’s not a spoiler because I made it up, I’m just using it as a ridiculous hypothetical so I’m not spoiling what the “black market rice” is in the novella), I would have had a much stronger sense of what was at stake: a young child in danger, Princess Elizabeth might not live long enough to become Queen Elizabeth II, the British Empire will get revenge on Tet Sang and his people if they fail to bring Princess Elizabeth/Prince Philip to safety, and so forth. That would have held me suspense, and learning what “black market rice” really is within the first 10% of the novella instead of halfway through would have also held me in suspense.

(To be crystal clear: Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip do not appear in the novella at all, they are just a stand-in for something that would be a spoiler.)

So in that review by Deathblade that you linked, he says it’s not really wuxia. Do you agree?

Yes, I strongly agree that it is not wuxia. And every review I found by wuxia fans also emphatically says that it is not wuxia. Apparently even Zen Cho herself said that it was really fanfic inspired by wuxia rather than wuxia (and the fanfic angle may explain why the novella is so stingy with information – fanfics don’t have to provide as much context as original stories). I think the book blurb which claims that it is a “found-family wuxia fantasy” was written by someone (almost certainly not Zen Cho herself, Big 5 publishers often don’t let authors write the book blurbs) who doesn’t know much about wuxia. Especially the ‘found-family’ part – found family is so fundamental to the wuxia genre that not having ‘found family’ would be a genre subversion, so saying ‘found-family wuxia’ is like saying ‘fantasy story with magic users’ or ‘murder mystery where somebody dies’ (in fact, I think the average mediocre wuxia story has a stronger theme of found-family than this novella). It seems that all of the reviews which claim that it is ‘wuxia’ were written by people who haven’t even read or watched a Jin Yong story.

Why did you look through so many reviews?

Because I was trying to find a review by a trans person, so I could link it and say ‘this is what this one trans person thinks about this novella.’ Since I’m cis, I think it’s good practice for me to put links to reviews by trans people when I’m reviewing books with trans protagonists.

Uh, shouldn’t you put a spoiler warning before revealing that the protagonist is trans?

HELL NO. Look, I’m cis, I’m not an expert on trans issues, I’ve made mistakes when talking about trans stuff, and I probably have more mistakes to make. But I know that some trans people think it’s a problem when a non-consensual reveal that a character is trans is treated as a plot twist. I want trans readers to be forewarned that this story does that. Also, refusing to issue a spoiler warning for this is my way of protesting non-consensual trans reveals as plot twists.

Now, would this ‘Oh my gosh, Tet Sang is a trans man!’ plot twist (the way it is actually phrased in the novella is “Brother, does everyone know you’re a woman?”) bother every trans person? Probably not. Trans people have a huge range of opinions, and I think some of them would not mind this ‘whoa he’s trans!’ plot twist. But I think some of them would be bothered. This was why I really would have liked to have found a review by a trans person (and if you know of such a review, please leave a comment with a link.)

“Sweet Polly Oliver” / “Samus Is a Girl” are common tropes in both wuxia and Western fantasy. And those tropes are not a problem when used on cis-female characters. But since many trans people are sensitive/scared of having their trans status revealed without their consent, doing this to a trans character has very different connotations.

I tried to find a review by a trans person on Goodreads. I tried lots of queries in search engines. I checked some of the book review blogs by trans people which I’m aware of. NOTHING. And that is…its own kind of red flag. Even someone making a half-assed attempt to market a book to trans people could get at least one review from a trans reviewer if they just put the word out in trans communities that the protagonist is trans. If the people responsible for promoting this book did not even try, that means…trans people aren’t the intended audience. (NOTE: I hope I’m wrong about this – if anyone knows of the publisher or the writer reaching out to trans communities for publicity, please let me know so I can update this).

Most of the reviews which mention the trans identity just have ‘yay, trans rep’ comments. The few which went into more depth about how this novella represented trans identity flag this very same issue, but since those reviews were also by cis people, I’m not linking them.

The way that trans characters are depicted in wuxia is a complex topic that is beyond the scope of this review, so I’ll give you the short version. Two classics of the wuxia genre, The Laughing Proud Wanderer by Jin Yong and Juédài Shuāngjiāo by Gu Long, have trans characters represented in a very transphobic way. Some bullies in the Chinese-speaking world torment trans people by calling them ‘Dongfang Bubai’ (trust me, most wuxia fans know who ‘Dongfang Bubai’ is, just as most fantasy fans know who ‘Gollum’ and ‘Snape’ are). There are less toxic representations of trans characters in classic wuxia novels, but they are less well known. So, if one compares “The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water” to classic wuxia, yes, it seems super trans-friendly. But being more trans-friendly than The Laughing Proud Wanderer is not impressive.

A lot of reviewers think this story is funny. Do you think it is funny?

No. I mean, yes, there were a few parts that were funny, but they weren’t worth reading about 30,000 words of fiction.

So, about the Malaysia stuff?

This was something I actually liked about the novella. Deathblade complains that there are too many Malaysian terms thrown around without being explained, but I felt like I understood enough from context that it did not impede my comprehension of the story. I didn’t need to know what exactly the ‘mata’ were to understand their role in the story. I know very little about Malaysian society/history but… what little I know turned out to be useful. I recognized right away that ‘Tang’ people are of Chinese ancestry, and I know that there has been historically (as well as today) a lot of conflict between ethnic Chinese and ethnic Malays in Malaysia. I also knew before I read this novella that Japanese imperialists (referred to as ‘Yamatese’ people in the novella) brutalized Malaysia during World War II, so all of the references to the ‘Yamatese’ helped me pin down the time period without me doing any research about Malaysian history. I actually liked that Zen Cho trusts the reader to be able to pick up so much from context. I think what needs more explanation are the characters and the plot, not the setting. But perhaps my experience would have been different if I lacked even my scant knowledge of Malaysia.

Sara, I’m guessing you did not like this novella.

You’re right, I did not. Instead, I recommend reading “The Black Tides of Heaven” by Neon Yang instead, another fantasy novella with an wuxia influence from a Southeast Asian writer. It is better in every way that I care about. It has a way better plot, there is character growth, and the trans male protagonist is much better written (and his identity as a trans man is NOT treated as a plot twist).

UPDATE: I have reached out to a few people to try to find reviews by trans people. I thank them for their efforts. They did not find any reviews by trans people for me, despite being well-connected (or at least claiming to be well-connected) to trans fiction communities. This confirms that this novella was not marketed at all to trans readers. If the author or publisher had lifted a finger to reach trans readers, I’m certain at least one of these contacts would have found reviews by trans readers.

I have found two reviews by trans readers on GoodReads: here and here. They both have a more negative view of trans representation in this novella than my own review.

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