I was sent this book as an advance copy by the publisher via NetGalley for reviewing purposes, but all opinions are my own.
“Fantastic, defiant, utterly brilliant.” —Ken Liu
Zen Cho returns with a found family wuxia fantasy that combines the vibrancy of old school martial arts movies with characters drawn from the margins of history.
A bandit walks into a coffeehouse, and it all goes downhill from there. Guet Imm, a young votary of the Order of the Pure Moon, joins up with an eclectic group of thieves (whether they like it or not) in order to protect a sacred object, and finds herself in a far more complicated situation than she could have ever imagined.
Release date: June, 23rd
This was one of my (if not the) most anticipated books coming out in the first half of this year so it’s not the easiest thing for me to review.
I really liked it and I think it delivered on a lot of points it promised to deliver on, and points I personally love in stories like well-rounded, three-dimensional characters. I had previously only read a short story by Zen Cho and I had high hopes for this novella, maybe even for it to become a favorite.
While I unfortunately can’t claim that it did become a favorite or even be very memorable, I still had a lot of fun while reading it. It’s a story that relies a lot on dialogue and banter, and especially the beginning was one of the strongest (and most fun) beginnings I’ve read in a while. It immediately drew me to the characters and compelled me to keep reading with little to no interruptions.
Throughout the novella I never felt like the writing was dragging, in fact I love Zen Cho’s writing and find it very unique in a way I can’t explain. I also found it fit the story and the world well.
As far queerness goes, I think the world Zen Cho created managed to be queernormative in that effortless way that I’ve come to love over the years of reading queer fantasy. It’s also a trans-inclusive story and in fact one of the main characters is a transmasculine, possibly nonbinary, person who uses he/him. I have some mixed feelings about how this was handled, I wouldn’t say it was a plot twist because there had been enough signs if you have a trained eye for this sort of things, but I’m certain a lot of readers will have missed it until another character asks him about it. And the way this other character asks, the dialogue kind of does the woman’s body thing that I personally don’t know how a trans person would feel about while reading.
While normalized queerness can be shown in different ways, I feel like normalized non-con kisses isn’t the way to go. It was only one kiss, and admittedly it was one I had kind of been hoping for from the beginning (I’m not talking about a kiss between the main pairing), but….not this way. It kind of ruined the ending for me a little because it was so unnecessary and clearly written as something you’re supposed to find funny.
One element I was excited about was the concept of found family, and I feel like that didn’t turn out to be one of the strongest points of this novella. I do think that each character felt unique and 3D right off the bat, like I’ve already mentioned before, in that way that I think works well in novellas where there’s not a lot of time for character development, especially with a big cast, so characters need to feel real from the first line they speak. While this aspect was absolutely well done and the group as a whole felt just as organic as the individual characters, I didn’t feel like they could be called a found family. Also I couldn’t help but notice that this fell into the there’s only one woman in a group of men category of fiction (unless you count Tet Sang as nonbinary, which he himself isn’t too clear about), and while it made sense for the world, I also don’t feel too positively about it and it certainly didn’t help the concept of found family, where I would expect a mix of genders.
Overall while I’m not completely satisfied with some smaller elements I did like this and I would consider acquiring a physical copy because of that gorgeous cover and to check if some of the things that left me puzzled were fixed before publication. I also am interested to read more of Zen Cho’s writing in the future and I would recommend this novella as a good place to start if you haven’t read Cho’s other books yet.