Zen Cho rolls out a charming wuxia-influenced tale of bandits and obscure Malaysian history

‘I’d prefer to be a monk with mystical powers, for sure. I wouldn’t enjoy brawling, ’ says Cho about picking a character from 'The Order Of The Pure Moon Reflected In Water'. Photo: Jim C. Hines

Who doesn’t love odd couple comedies?

These are stories where two people, who are completely different from each other, are forced to live or work together. The clash in personalities usually leads to a lot of humour, and both parties often end up learning a lot from each other.

An odd couple from a recent Star Wars movie helped inspire author London-based Malaysian author Zen Cho’s new novella The Order Of The Pure Moon Reflected In Water.

“As with any story, there were multiple sources of inspiration that coalesced in the story idea. One source was the characters of Baze Malbus and Chirrut Imwe from the Star Wars Rogue One movie, played by Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen. I was drawn to the idea of this odd couple, with a pious fighting monk and his disenchanted partner, ” says Cho, 34, in an email interview.

“The characters’ dynamics plug into a long tradition of brothers-in-arms in Sinophone (Chinese-speaking) media and that made me think of wuxia, but the story didn’t gel until I decided to set it in a fantasy version of Malaya during the Emergency, ” she adds.

The book, released in June this year, is published by Tor.com Publishing.

Petaling Jaya, Selangor-born Cho’s previous works include short story anthology Spirits Abroad, Sorcerer To The Crown and The True Queen.

In 2019, her story If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again won the US-based Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

Her latest work The Order Of The Pure Moon Reflected In Water is set in a fantasy realm, which resembles a cross between the China of wuxia films, and old Malaya during the Emergency.

It tells the tale of Guet Imm, a young nun of a religious order, who gets involved in a quarrel in a coffeehouse. A group of bandits intervene, and the situation escalates into a full-on-brawl.

After the brawl, Guet Imm seeks out the bandits in their camp, and asks if she can join them in exchange for service. After an agreement is made, the young nun ends up following the bandits on a journey.

Guet Imm ends up forming a bond with Tet Sang, the rough-and-ready right hand man of the handsome bandit chief Fung Cheung.

Having the world of a bandit and the world of a religious nun come together result in some very funny scenes, and contribute to much of this novella’s comedy.

At first glance, it seems like the tale of Guet Imm and Tet Sang is going to turn out to be a standard adventure story with romance. The story takes on many twists, however, with characters revealing secrets, and unexpected events that change the course of the story.

The Order Of The Pure Moon Reflected In Water is also an exploration of faith, identity, and how people are changed by their circumstances.

“I can’t go into too much detail without spoiling it for people who haven’t yet read the book. But the original story was this idea of people who had lost their home, their community – really, all the things that were important to them and that made up their identity, ” she elaborates.

“I was interested in exploring what that is like and how you survive and even thrive after experiencing that kind of loss.”

This Cho story is a novella: a piece of fiction longer than a short story, but shorter than a standard novel. It stands at just over 170 pages.

“Novellas give you more space to explore characters than a short story, but you can wrap up the story within a third of the word count of a novel, so it’s a lot less effort to write, ” says Cho.

She also maintains that her novella is not a typical wuxia story, and it is more about “feelings than fights”.

One particular highlight of the book is its frequent use of Bahasa Malaysia words. They are sprinkled all over the story, without any footnotes or definitions provided.

These words are simply accepted and absorbed as part of the story’s world without any need for further clarification.

“Readers who don’t know Bahasa Malaysia seem to have been able to follow the book, from the reviews I’ve seen. I’d expect fantasy readers especially to be able to roll with ‘strange’ words... there are so many fantasy books featuring made-up languages, animals, foods and so on, ” says Cho, who is a practising corporate lawyer in London.

There were no fixed plans to expand on the story found in The Order Of The Pure Moon Reflected In Water. Her next work, she reveals, will be a return to Malaysia.

“I’m working on a contemporary fantasy set in Malaysia, about a young woman who is haunted by the ghost of her estranged grandmother.

“In life, her grandmother was the spirit medium of a vengeful goddess and a gangster matriarch – and she has unfinished business in this world, which she needs her granddaughter’s help with. It’s funny and dark and full of annoying aunties,” concludes Cho.

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