Zen Cho’s 2020 The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a wuxia adventure.
Lau Fung Cheung and his companions style themselves contractors, independent agents to whom one can turn to convey goods from one location to another without attracting the attention of the Protector’s bothersome functionaries. To the Protector and his bothersome functionaries, Lau Fung Cheung are bandits. Best for Lau Fung Cheung and the others to maintain low profiles.
Free-range nun Guet Imm is going to make maintaining a low profile very difficult.
Lau Fung Cheung and Tet Sang meet Guet Imm on her last day as a waitress. She objects to customers pinching her bottom. One customer claims that she used magic to deter him. The two bandits leap to her defense, a courteous gesture that leaves the inn in shambles and Guet Imm unemployed.
Some months earlier, Guet Imm — Nirohda to her fellow nuns in the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water — emerged from seclusion to find her tokong sacked, her fellow nuns murdered or vanished. Seeing no other choice, she has tried to make a new life for herself in more mundane occupations.
Since waitressing didn’t work out, she decides to join the bandits. After all, the bandits are some of the reasons she is no longer a waitress. The bandits are nonplussed when she appears in their midst when they camp for the night. She convinces them to let her stay.
She teaches them to repair clothing and observe basic hygiene. The bandits teach the nun many new things, including a political lesson that explains why her tokong was attacked. A quiet war is raging. When the Yamatese occupied the region, the Protector allied with the Local Reformists. After the Yamatese were driven out, the Protector decided that the Reformists were mere bandits. Bandits must be vanquished, along with anyone offering them aid. Since the holy orders give food to any starving person who asks, official suspicion has fallen on them. In the eyes of the authorities, suspicion is equivalent to guilt.
Now it could be that the bandits are as innocent as Guet Imm, guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is not the case. They aren’t robbers, but they are definitely smugglers. Their specialty? Artifacts that will strain the relationship between bandits and nun.
The author’s blog notes that this novel was inspired by Chinese myth, as well as by the real history of the Malayan Emergency. That might make the Yamatese roughly equivalent to the Imperial Japanese and the Protectorate to the British Empire.
Anglosphere readers who grew reading Kipling and others1 might have some fond nostalgia for the days when a third of the world was colored red on the map. Odd that former British colonies2—places like India, say, or Kenya—saw the Empire as oppressive.
Wait, you say, aren’t the empires in South-Asia-inspired fantasies generally a tweaked version of China? That’s often the case, but it’s probably not the case in this novel. Cho is Malaysian and her fantasy is set in a fantasy version of the southern Malay Peninsula. The local empires (Srivijaya [8th to the 12th century] and Majapahit [13th to 16th century]) knew of China; they dealt with China2; but they were never conquered by China. The recent invaders were Portugal, Britain, and Japan.
This is a wuxia story featuring flashy, dramatic martial arts little inhibited by actual physics3. This goes double for martial artist nuns, like those of the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water.
The book is also a found-family adventure, in which a naïve person falls in with charming rogues. There’s bloodshed and loss here but also affection and friendship. My only complaint is that I wished it were longer. I enjoyed it; you might too.
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is available for pre-order (unless you are reading this after June 23rd, in which case substitute “order”) here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon US), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).
1: Among these others I’d include H. Beam Piper. Really. Because The entire Terro-Human Federation is his sunny version of the British Empire. Uller Uprising is his version of the Sepoy Mutiny.
2: The Malays also had to deal with Indian kingdoms, such as the Chola, seeing as how they were smack dab in the middle of the ocean trade route between India and China.
3. If you want to sample wuxia, you might try watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.