Banter among Bandits in “The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water” – Chicago Review of Books


Deciding what book to read next can be an arduous task. I’ve been known to comb through recommendations from friends, bestseller lists, and review publications like this one, sometimes for hours on end. But sometimes it’s simpler. Just an appealing cover and a catchy premise.

“A bandit walks into a coffeehouse, and it all goes downhill from there.”

Zen Cho’s novella The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water draws upon wuxia narratives of ancient China and Malaysian cultural traditions, creating something entirely new and modern. Wuxia, stories concerning martial arts heroes, has found a home in literature, film, theatre, and numerous other media. Often these stories take place in fantasy settings with ancient cultural elements, and Pure Moon is no exception. 

The novella thrusts us in the midst of a long-standing war, where the oppressive Protectorate has stamped out religious devotion and sends out spies, the mata, to catch bandits and rebels. We follow a group of bandits as they smuggle contraband in and out of villages. Their latest companion is a young nun, Guet Imm, trying to find a life for herself after the destruction of her temple. Guet Imm is a cheerful, witty young woman, whose banter with the various bandits is one of the highlights of the novella. She grows close to one of the senior members, Tet Sang, and bit by bit we uncover more about the story’s faith systems, the identities of the bandits, and the true nature of the Order of the Pure Moon.

To discuss Pure Moon is to discuss the highlights and shortcomings of the novella form. Novellas at their best understand their limitations, narrowing the scope of their time scale or plotline in favor of nuanced character portraits. Pure Moon understands these limitations to some degree. Its characters’ quest is simple, allowing it to focus more on building relationships between the bandits and Guet Imm. For a wuxia tale, the story spends little time on martial arts and more time exploring matters of spirituality and gender identity. The banter between characters is a highlight as well; humor abounds in this novella and nicely juxtaposes the wartime setting. However, in this limited space, there are a few elements sorely missing.

At times Pure Moon reads like a stage play, focusing on dialogue rather than environment. The bandits bicker about cooking, money, division of labor, all as they traipse from place to place and make camp, without much description of the world itself. As a result it can feel that the characters are floating in space. And while the novel’s snappy beginning, a brawl in a coffee shop, sets the plot in motion, it doesn’t allow for necessary worldbuilding. This worldbuilding is sometimes worked in naturally through the novella, but at other times introduced in large chunks a bit too late in the novella for true understanding. Matters of gender identity and sexual orientation among the characters are intriguing, but in such a limited space some developments feel inevitably rushed.

I read Pure Moon wanting more. The political consequences and widespread corruption, the origin stories of each bandit, the teachings of the titular Order of the Pure Moon, all of these deserve pages and pages to flesh out the world and balance the character banter. I would happily read Pure Moon as a novel, even as a lengthy fantasy tome. As a novella, I’m left wondering if the work is more potential than reality. Nevertheless, it’s a work I praise for its inventive concept, compelling character interactions, and poignant social commentary. Let this, along with the cover art, draw you in.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
By Zen Cho
Published June 23, 2020



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