'The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water' by Zen Cho, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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

Alexander Wallace walks into a coffeehouse...
I found this book in a local library and picked it up only because I had heard the name ‘Zen Cho’ somewhere; maybe I’ve read her short fiction in one of the magazines to which I subscribe. In any case, I read it, and I didn’t regret it.

Cho is a Malaysian writer now living in Britain; this is her first book that I’ve read. It is a short book and a brief read. I’m reasonably certain it falls under the ‘novella’ category.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is an Asian fantasy reminiscent of R. F. Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy or maybe Avatar: the Last Airbender. The author’s own site says that it is based strongly on the Malayan Emergency, when the British, the country’s colonial overlord, brutally crushed an uprising of the Malayan Chinese community with a combination of land reform and concentration camps (in the Boer War sense, not the gas chamber sense). Having learned this, some of the elements of this novella make more sense.

The story starts with a time-honored beat in the fantasy genre: a scuffle in a tavern. This scuffle involves a rowdy customer, a server who used to be a nun, and bandits who coincidentally are on wanted posters by the local government. After she is fired for making a scene, she goes off with these bandits, rogues and thieves in a war-ravaged land.

Much of the book is about culture clash, particularly between the rough lifestyle of the bandits and the refinement that the nun was used to before she had to leave. In some ways, it’s a Baz Luhrmann-esque comedy of manners that leaves you checking the assumptions that you bring to any social interaction.

But it’s also a war story. All of these characters have been afflicted, in one way or another, by the cruel war that has raged across the world in which they inhabit. It isn’t a soldier’s story, the fingerprints of this insanity touch the entire narrative. The central event of the nun’s life involves the ravages of the war, and other characters have their own secrets in relation to it.

This all coalesces in a tightly plotted story awash with witty dialogue. There are times when the narrative is actually quite funny; much of this comes from the deftly fleshed-out characters who feel very real. The end result is crisp, efficient, and wastes no words. Cho has created a story that demonstrates what the novella should be; I’ll certainly need to read more of her work.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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