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The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho2.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsFound family stories are all the rage these days in SFF, and Zen Cho, the acclaimed Malaysian author of Sorcerer to the Crown, has delivered her own in The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, a charming little adventure heavily influenced by Chinese wuxia fantasies. If I have ever had a criticism of found family stories, it’s that unless they’re exceptionally written, you can all too easily end up with a tale that fails to develop any aspect of itself beyond the found family dynamic in a satisfying way. Pure Moon, I’m sorry to say, falls into that trap. Yes, it’s a pleasure to read and has many virtues. But Zen Cho lets too much of her tale coast on charm, while shortchanging the narrative of any sense of urgency or consequence. These characters are fun, but their adventure holds very few stakes for us.

On a peninsula wracked by war and the tyrannical suppression of religious orders, a wanted bandit named Lau Fung Cheung, assisted by his second in command Tet Sang, is leading his gang on a perilous mission to fence some stolen sacred artifacts while avoiding agents of the Protectorate. Following an amusing tavern brawl that opens the story, they end up being joined by a pushy-but-in-a-cute-way young nun, Guet Imm, of the story’s titular religious order.

These early scenes give us Zen Cho firing on all cylinders. There is a particular kind of comedy that you’ll see in Chinese wuxia movies, usually involving awkward misunderstandings, and Cho absolutely nails this rhythm in her funnier dialogue moments. There’s also something to the idioms used by the characters when speaking that is distinctly characteristic of Malaysian English. My family spent three years living in Singapore when I was little, and though I was too young at the time to have picked up on much of it myself, a lot of the comments that have been circulating on social media about this aspect of the story did spark some fond childhood memories.

But once you’re into the story proper, you find there isn’t much more to most of the characters beyond the bantering. A defining trope of found family stories is that these are characters who have come together because they all have something they’re running from or running to, and the best of these stories work because each member of the team is written as a three-dimensional, fully conceived person. But the only characters Cho bothers to give depth are Guet Imm, who has reasons for insinuating herself into the group that are only slowly revealed, and Tet Sang, who is hiding secrets both in his past and his present from everybody else. Despite being the group’s leader, Fung Cheung takes on mostly a support role, and he often seems to have a tenuous hold at best over the morale of the others. We never really get to know him; we only know he has a natural 18 Charisma. And as for the rest of the group, despite most of them having character moments of their own, they still feel like ciphers, indistinct, interchangeable, easily forgettable. We know nothing of their lives or their pasts.

I suspect that there’s little wrong with Pure Moon that could not have been fixed by turning it from a 150 page novella into a 300 page novel. The story simply cries out for more meat on its bones. The world building, despite Zen Cho’s lustrous prose, feels only adequate. We understand, at a baseline level, about the dispute between the Protectorate and those who resist it, but a greater sense of the history of this conflict, with a particular focus on the specific life events that led Fung Cheung and the rest of his men into a life of banditry, would have done wonders. We’re never given any reason to feel a sense of urgency about the artifacts Fung Sheung and his men are trying to sell, and whether they end up in the right hands. I wanted to know so much more than I actually got about the land, its people, the Order of the Pure Moon and Guet Imm’s own years of being cloistered in the order.

Cho devotes a great deal of attention to her characters’ sexualities and gender identities, but that just made me want to know more about their struggles and triumphs, about the impact they’ve felt in a land torn apart by war and oppression. And don’t even get me started on the whiplash-inducing final chapter surprise reveal, about which I will only say one character, out of the blue, suddenly possesses superpowers. It feels like a cheat, and the explanation we get just isn’t enough.

I suppose these all sound like pretty substantial gripes. They are. But it speaks to just how much Zen Cho gets right that I wanted more story to fill those gaps. Pure Moon isn’t the first Tor.com novella I have found myself wishing was a full novel and I am sure it won’t be the last. But it is one I’d be willing to check out a sequel to, because I really would like to peer more deeply into its waters.