REVIEW: The Water Outlaws by S. L. Huang
A queer epic fantasy full of bandits, heroes, and revolution, inspired by the Chinese classic Water Margin; She Who Became the Sun meets The Dirty Dozen
n the jianghu, you break the law to make it your own.
Inspired by a classic of martial arts literature, The Water Outlaws are bandits of devastating ruthlessness, unseemly femininity, dangerous philosophies, and ungovernable gender who are ready to make history—or tear it apart.
Lin Chong is an expert arms instructor, training the Emperor’s soldiers in sword and truncheon, battle axe and spear, lance and crossbow. Unlike bolder friends who flirt with challenging the unequal hierarchies and values of Imperial society, she believes in keeping her head down and doing her job.
Until a powerful man with a vendetta rips that carefully-built life away.
Disgraced, tattooed as a criminal, and on the run from an Imperial Marshall who will stop at nothing to see her dead, Lin Chong is recruited by the Bandits of Liangshan. Mountain outlaws on the margins of society, the Liangshan Bandits proclaim a belief in justice—for women, for the downtrodden, for progressive thinkers a corrupt Empire would imprison or destroy. They’re also murderers, thieves, smugglers, and cutthroats.
Apart, they love like demons and fight like tigers. Together, they could bring down an empire.
Author’s Note on Potentially Disturbing Content
This book is a genderspun retelling of the Chinese classic novel Water Margin, in which antiheroic bandits rise up against a tyrannical government on behalf of the people. I’ve reimagined it as a melding of epic fantasy and wuxia, an action-packed battle against patriarchy that’s rife with indecorous women and fantastical sword fights.
In that context, this story is intentionally, gloriously violent—mostly in a cinematic style (based on the wuxia genre—think Chinese martial arts films). However, you’ll also find a few scenes of torture, the occasional extremity such as cannibalism, and one attempted sexual assault. The background society, in its regression and misogyny, also holds a number of values as normal that may disturb a modern reader.
That said, I hope this is primarily a joyous, toothy escapist adventure, one in which a group made up almost entirely of women and queer folk—who are in equal parts devastating, powerful, righteous, and terrible—stand up as self-proclaimed heroes to tear the world asunder.
—S. L. Huang
Dear. Ms. Huang,
After reading “Burning Roses” a number of years ago, I’ve wanted to read something else by you and when I saw this cover I got all excited and downloaded the arc. It’s like a Chinese genderqueer (violent) Robin Hood but with (mostly) female bandits and outlaws who want to stick it to the Man while dispensing justice for the poor and downtrodden and having fun doing it. Wuxia! Fantasy! Female martial arts fighters! While I appreciate the character list at the front of the book, I found it unnecessary as there isn’t a character-dump all at once. The gradual introduction made it easy for me to keep everyone in my head.
At its heart this is good vs evil. In Song Dynasty China Lin Chong has managed to carve out a pretty good life for herself despite her poor childhood and lack of family connections.. But it comes crashing down when a drunken pissant piece of shit tries to rape her. Since that drunk is the friend of the Emperor, even the intervention of her highly born friend Lady Lu Junyi, can only mitigate the sentence. If Lin Chong pleads guilty (to something she didn’t do) and is lashed then tattooed as a criminal, she will be allowed to stagger to a distant work camp. Along the way she overhears that the pissant has bribed her guards to kill her. Without the help of Lu Da (a tall, broad woman you don’t mess with) who kills one of the guards and maims the other, Lin Chong would be dead. Now she’s an outlaw.
In the mountain camp of Liangshan live the outcasts, outlaws, rebels, and thieves who have either run from civilization or been driven from it. Some of them are not nice people and Lin Chong is at first shocked to be among them but she also realizes she has nowhere else to go. There’s an “all for one, and one for all” feeling and ethos. Some of the leaders tempt Lin Chong by explaining that yes, a lot of the people here have done bad things but under their rule, these people will do bad things for the good of the empire. Right.
The other half of the story hammers home the fact that (close to) absolute power corrupts absolutely. An evil Chancellor wants Lady Lu to assist with a project he has. No really, she has no choice. There are things called “god’s teeth” in this world which, if handled correctly, allow the owner (and the teeth know who properly owns them and who doesn’t – Woe to those who try and make a grab for one) the powers taken from the world when gods and dragons disappeared centuries ago. Think mind-bending wuxia and self/world/past, present, and future awareness. Lady Lu is an intellectual and even if the calm Chancellor didn’t threaten her, everyone she knows and loves plus everyone else who is working on the project with ugly death, she’d be intrigued enough to want to study the problem. Yes, the Chancellor wants new and improved god’s teeth (Lady Lu and her staff quickly begin calling them “fangs”) and he wants them yesterday.
Of course these two halves are destined to finally clash. The road there is ugly at times, funny at others, and sprinkled with heartbreak. The powers and people that are going to slam together are epic. Remembering that Chinese stories often end tragically, I was braced for what might happen. The battle is scrappy underdog vs powerful government. People willing to die gloriously to the last person but who are determined to take as many of their foes with them as possible. You get better heroic songs written about you that way. It comes complete with a rousing “speech to the troops,” close calls, and tragic deaths. There are winners and losers. I’m not going to say more than that.
I managed to suck this 488 page book down in three days. I cheered and sighed but I refrained from peeking at the end. I’m mostly happy with the way the story ended but the epilogue was way too long. Readers who want to tackle the book, carefully read the author’s note that I copied out above. There are some disturbing elements in the story. But if you’re looking for an epic standalone fantasy set in historical China with all kinds of diversity and inclusion, this one kicks ass. B+