Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Published by Tordotcom on June 23, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
“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.
This was absolutely none of the things I was expecting when I picked it up – and that’s mostly a good thing. Although, at least so far, this author’s works have not quite, at least for this reader, lived up to her incredible debut, Sorcerer to the Crown – one of those books that just blew everyone away from the opening pages and continued blowing right through to the end.
Howsomever, that does not mean I did not enjoy this one, because I certainly did. Even though, or perhaps especially because, the beginning of the story is, as one reviewer put it, a feint. A huge, gigantic bit of misdirection that leads the reader to think the story is going to be one thing, when in fact it turns out to be several other things – all of them rather fascinating – but not what the opening scene leads the reader to expect.
Because that opening scene reads, not just like a bit of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but specifically like the action scenes from that movie. A bandit walks into a bar, finds his own wanted poster, involves himself in a fight that a)doesn’t need his input, b) exposes his presence and c)makes enemies he doesn’t need.
All to defend a waitress who may have brought at least some of it on herself in the first place – and doesn’t require his assistance in the second.
It’s only as the story proceeds that the reader learns that almost none of the things that we thought about the waitress, the bandit and the situation they find themselves in are anything like what we thought they were.
Except that the bar really is a dive. That much is true. But the bandits aren’t exactly bandits, the waitress is a whole lot more than a waitress, and the world in which they live is a whole lot grittier and more true-to-life than the wuxia setting of the opening leads the reader to believe.
Because the story here, is about the cost of survival in a world that has torn itself apart in war, and the collateral damage wrecked upon people and institutions, hearts and minds and souls, when everyone is forced to do their best and worst merely to survive.
And where a nun and a bandit discover that they are sisters under the skin – no matter how little either of them wants to confront their shared past.
Escape Rating B: I really liked what I got, but this is a time where I really wished that this had been more than a novella. Because the tiny slice I got of this war torn almost-China made me want to know more about pretty much everything.
Especially about the group of bandits/mercenaries/thieves/revolutionaries that the nun-turned-waitress-turned-nun attaches herself to. We don’t have enough story to really learn who the bandits are or specifically why each of them got into the fix the group is in. We do learn that they are trapped in the middle between the Protectorate who seem to be forces of tyranny and the bandits, who are forces of lawlessness and worst and rebels at best. The group she inserts herself into are a found family of lost souls who seem to be part of none of the above at a time that isn’t quite history but has echoes of it all the same.
It’s also a story about the ruthlessness of just trying to survive, and how that struggle breaks down everything in its path – including the strength of this found family that have traveled together for so long.
And it’s a story about identity. The one you left behind. The one you project to those around you. The person you are in your heart. And figuring out a way to live with all of those selves in some kind of harmony – especially in a world where there is absolutely none.