Cover Image: The Water Outlaws

The Water Outlaws

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Member Reviews

Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for a copy for review. I read another review that described this book as “cinematic” and I completely agree. This is a classic tale so there are no big surprises and the plot is predictable. The characters are engaging and well written. I will be looking into more from the author.

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Thank you NetGalley, Tor Books, and the author for an eARC of The Water Outlaws in exchange for my honest review!

After being falsely accused by a corrupt government official, an expert arms instructor joins a band of outlaws who serve a fierce belief in justice that their current empire is suppressing. The Water Outlaws is a political fantasy with dynamic martial arts, found family, and ruthless characters.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one. I've only read a handful of books that are inspired by the wuxia genre but I've had a good experience with it every time.

I wish I had gotten to know the characters better. I think that was ultimately where this book was lacking for me. Other than Lin Chong, our primary character, everyone else felt a bit surface level as far as the degree of knowing and understanding them. Plus, there was one character that was so infuriating to me, it affected my enjoyment whenever they had the spotlight.

3.75/5 Stars

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Thank you to netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an arc of this title in exchance for an honest review.

The Water Outlaws was a refreshing blend of martial arts and intrigue, which centers women and queer people, whilst also commenting on things like the patriachy and corruption. The atmosphere was lush and vibrant and definitly one of my favorite aspects of this book, along with its cast of fascinating chracters. Though, i would have loved for these to have been explored just a bit deeper than they were. However, the book was still an incredibly satisfying read and i definitly reccomend it to any who find themselves tempted by that gorgeous cover.

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Loved this. A bit slow-paced to start, but it picked up around the 40% mark and raced nonstop till the end.

So this is a gender-swapped retelling of Water Margin, one of four Classic Chinese Novels (c. 14th century). That novel, in turn, is based on the heroic real-life exploits of a band of 12th century bandits who rebelled against the Song Dynasty. In this retelling, the bandits are all women, with a good number of trans and gender-fluid folks among them.

The story is told through a handful of POVs but has a large cast of secondary characters I wouldn’t have minded getting to know better. This is clearly a plot- and not character-driven book, though, which is fine.

This reminded me a lot both of Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun and Martha Wells’ Witch King. The former both for the obvious reason (they’re both gender-swapped retellings of ancient Chinese history) but also because of the level of violence; this one even has a brief but very much on-page bout of cannibalism. The latter for the fantasy elements, with an evil ruling person/group fashioning a weapon of supernaturally destructive strength.

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okay, it’s really 4.5 stars, but it deserved the round up! this was a compelling, extremely readable, gorgeously written story of found family, magic, epic battles, and the difference between law and justice.

we follow the intertwining stories Imperial Arms Instructor Lin Chong as her careful life is abruptly, violently overturned, and her friend Lu Junyi, an academic who finds herself caught up in a new and dangerous plot by a high-ranking imperial official. I won’t say much more about the story, but you can expect thoughtful themes, seriously epic action scenes, a vibrant and deeply queer cast of characters, and no romantic subplots!

so much about this really just shone: the multiple POVs, the wonderfully-written action scenes, the bonds between the characters, the way even the minor characters were so vivid and human. the plot was engrossing and the suspense just beautifully done. my one critique is that the wrap-up of one plot arc (the internal conflict among the Liangshan bandits) felt a little rushed, but it was a minor thing ultimately, and didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the reading experience. while this is, I believe, a standalone (and the ending wraps up satisfyingly), there is also serious sequel potential — let us read more about the haojie of Liangshan, please!!!

altogether: an excellent read which i would enthusiastically recommend, and I am already excited to see what S.L. Huang does next. thanks so much to Tor and Netgalley for the ARC!

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The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang

Brutal, tortured, oppressed society with women in this book enduring much. From the beginning the men were misogynistic, entitled, and evil with no redeeming qualities. The writing was well done, the imagery drew me in, the characters were easy to relate to, and yet…I found myself skimming from time to time. I had trouble with the Chinese names and keeping the characters sorted though the main characters were easier to follow.

This seemed to be a story of good versus evil with those in power wanting more and more while stepping on those they felt less than themselves. They had no qualms about killing, raping, torturing, and taking what they wanted.

Lin Chong had strength and power and a will to survive. Accused of something she didn’t do and by standing up for herself…she nearly died. Finding herself with a group of predominately female bandits with an agenda of her own, Lin Chong began to come into her own, realize greater power, and see that the black and white world she believed in was not quite what she thought it was.

There were elements of fantasy, magic, and myth with changes wrought by the few that might have a trickle down impact on many.

Did I enjoy this book? For the most part
Would I read more by this author? Maybe

Thank you to NetGalley and Tor Publishing Group for the ARC – This is my honest review.

3-4 Stars

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I'm not a huge fan of miliary dramas but I couldn't pass up the chance to read The Water Outlaws. I wasn't expecting the book to be so funny considering the heavy subject matter but I did find myself laughing out loud a few times. I did find that it was a bit of a drag towards the end and I don't know that I totally understood some of the character arcs or the "magic" but I enjoyed the story overall. I would suggest it to fans of "She Who Became the Sun".

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An innovative retelling of a Chinese mythology, this novel felt overwhelming from the beginning with its immense cast of characters and various POVs. Likening this novel to She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan might make sense thematically, but I found the writing style of this novel to be rather basic, and sometimes anachronistic (using modern expressions or emotions almost threw me for a loop and took me out of the time) and not as lyrical as its comp.

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I’m a big fan of SL Huang and I love her stance on retelling classic Chinese stories and myths with women and queer characters. However, in this case it differs from having too many characters to follow, letting us barely scratch the surface. Part of that, of course, is the style, with this emulating the wuxia style and therefore coming off as over-the-top, brutally violent, and full of rapid flurries of action.

Huang definitely knows her way around a fight scene, and the pacing and physical movement of the story worked well. But the characters apart from Lin Chong don’t really see much growth or challenging of their ideals - even Lu Junyi who is arguably the other emotional pillar on which the story stands.

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Lin Chong has always done what was expected. As a child, she studied hard, trained harder to take the Examination, and made her way from a quiet city street to Arms Instructor of the Emperor’s own soldiers. Using sword and spear, crossbow and body, she serves her Emperor and China, one of the very few women in such a position, and she serves well. In a world of politics, Lin Chong keeps her head down and her mouth shut. Women come and go; maids and servants with tears in their eyes and bruises on their skin, but that’s none of her business … until her friend, Lu Junyi, is called for a private meeting with Gao Qiu.

This leads to Lin Chong being accused of a crime she didn’t commit, thrown into the dungeon, and scheduled for execution. Lu Junyi, a socialite, known for her collections of poets, scholars, people of conversation, and wit, knows what Lin Chong has done for her and arranges for lesser charges and a more merciful punishment. Instead of death, Lin Chong’s face is now branded with the mark of a criminal and she is dragged off to serve in a penal colony on the borders of the Empire. But Gao Qiu is not the kind of man to forgive an insult, and tasks the guards to kill her along the way.

If it weren’t for Lu Da, the Flower Monk, sent by Lu Junyi to follow and protect Lin Chong, he might have succeeded. Instead, Lu Da whisks Lin Chong deep into the swamps and introduces her to the bandits of Liangshan. Liangshan is a world of women bandits, where what you did before you arrived isn’t important; it’s what you do when you’re here. These women, cast off, cast out, some guilty of the crimes they’re accused of, some not, rob rich merchants and live for adventure. They are haojie, heroes, who dream of righting wrongs and saving lives while living free and happy.

Lin Chong has a choice to make. Live in the past, mourn for the life taken from her … or live the life she has today.

The Water Outlaws is a retelling of Water Margin (also called Outlaws of the Marsh), which is about a group of bandits who rebelled against the government. It’s similar to Robin Hood, in a way, with a dramatic and charismatic leader and their chosen family rising up to strike at cruel and corrupt nobles for the protection of the peasants. However, the noble heroes of Liangshan … haven’t always been heroes. They are cooks who worked in black inns, where the meat on the menu didn’t come from anything with four legs; women who left trails of blood behind them; and thieves, liars, and murderers. They are alongside poets who wrote the wrong words; philosophers who dreamed of a world without corruption; women who didn’t want to sleep with men in power; or women like Lin Chong, who stood up against abuse and cruelty, but were unable to save themselves.

Lin Chong has always seen herself as doing the right thing, of merely following orders … just as the soldiers who slaughtered a town were only following orders. She saw herself as a normal person, innocent of doing anything wrong, much as every other person who looked away when harm was being done. Here, Lin Chong is being given a choice to serve alongside sisters, but even then, she holds back. Keeps herself apart, sees herself as different from these women. Because, even here, there are petty struggles as the woman in charge bullies others, holds court like a member of the Emperor’s court, demands others bow before her and obey without question.

Lin Chong never asked to be a hero, never asked to be special, never sought to be more than she was. Until she sees someone else being put in the same position, another woman led step by step, failure by failure to Liangshan.

None of [her choices] had seemed very much like choices at all, when she made of each of them, each knocking her toward this eventual end, when she had to choose one more time, with exhaustion and anger rubbing her to rawness far past endurance […].

She chose one more time.

She chose, this time, not to give in to one more person who only wished her ill, who was corrupting this life where she might find a place, a person who was a clear and current danger to all those she oversaw, whose presence only tore down and poisoned and whose absence would mean a better world.

Lin Chong chose.

This is a story about pride, ego, and sacrifice. It’s Lu Junyi serving in the palace, doing what she’s told by a man she fears, believing not just because she wants to — wants to believe good things will happen, just and fair and moral — but because to peek over the edge of her rose-tinted glasses may show her fields of red blood, destruction, and despair that she is helping create. It’s about Wu Yong, whose plans are flawless, but whose desire for excitement and the need to win cloud her judgement. It’s Lu Da and her giant heart, and Song Jiang, the poet, who wants a better world. It’s Chao Gai and the village of Dongxi; and The Chaos Demon and her husband, an old married couple who are imprisoned by Cai Jing for seditious thoughts and now forced to work under threats of torture and death on a super weapon that could destroy the world. It’s every choice that was made and all those that weren’t. It’s a story about people choosing to become heroes.

Obviously, I love this book. (I mean, I gave it five stars.) There are a lot of characters introduced, a lot of stories interwoven, and the pace goes from the pastoral quiet before the storm to the violent destruction of armies. There is endless world building, interwoven plots, and exquisite writing. It’s mythic and lyrical, and the emotional beats for me were spot on. I’m so glad I was able to read this book, and hope you take this chance to read it, yourself. Expect me to rave about this book again in December with my year wrap-up and favorites list.

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Huang's retelling is so well done that I didn't even have to know the original story in order to fully immerse myself in this world.

They blend philosophy, alchemical study and interests, political intrigue, and martial arts with attention to period, character development and world building. Nothing lacks detail and this along with the dialogue only increased my interest and enjoyment.

With perspectives from multiple characters, the world opens up on the page, with its hierarchical structures, political spheres, corruption, and exploitations. The depiction of imperial powers and government reach versus the idea of equality and justice that is sought by brave, exiled, and reviled individuals is clearly rendered.

I enjoyed the ways that plans are made and carried out, the ways that opposing forces parry and attempt to outwit each other is immensely enjoyable to me. Overall a well-writen retelling with a focus on the characters and their motivations, as well as the complexities of certain decisions that push us towards an eventual future.

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Amazon Review submitted, pending Amazon approval
Imgur Link goes to Instagram graphic scheduled for Sept 19th
Blog post scheduled for Sept 19th

**TL;DR**: A very dense story with far more telling than showing. It might stick with me for a time, but I doubt I'll continue what seems to be a series.

It's not often that I can quote a classic writing tip when writing reviews, I'm not critical in the actual craft of writing but this time I can. Show, not tell is a great golden rule, and one I don't think this book adhered to great. It's dense and wordy and we spend a lot of time in the minds of characters as they mull, and think over things. It left me feeling heavy and not... enthusiastic about reading. While I definitely enjoyed parts of this I was not jumping up and down or glued to the pages.

The Water Outlaws follows our main character Lin Chong who is a well respected Arms Instructor for the military. All of that comes crashing down around her after she is sexual assaulted (on page, so mind your triggers), and fights back. This earns her a brand, a fake confession that she attempted to assassinate a high level commander (the same that assaulted her) and a death sentence. With some help of a friend she is sent away to serve out her sentence in different and easier location. From there things unravel, Lin Chong becomes caught up with a band of bandits, all women or queer in some fashion. Meanwhile the men and friend left in the city are slowly becoming more corrupt, more power crazed, and lost in each other's madness.

There was a lot about this I enjoyed but I do wish we'd seen a faster pace plot, more action, and less telling us of feelings. I'll likely try more of S.L. Huang, but I'm not completely sold on her style for me as a reader. This one was heavy, and dense for me. If you enjoy your stories to be a bit slower and in this style this could be the pick for you though!

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Queer, angry, anti-patriarchy - this book has everything I love to read in a story! Though a little slow to start for me, I enjoyed the book immensely. It had some slow bits throughout, but it was easy to keep reading because I was waiting for the next thrilling segment. For me, this embodied the phrase "I support women's wrongs" wholeheartedly. The fight scenes were vivd and exciting, the world was rich, and the characters were realistic. Though I'm not personally familiar with the original story (Water Margin), but I imagine that as far as retellings go, this is a fantastic feminist reimagining of a Chinese classic.

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This books has everything you can love and want from a fantasy: action, adventure, magic, politics, female-led rebellions. The premise, writing, story telling all great! There was just one problem. I didn’t care. For some reason I could not get myself to care for these characters stories. To care about the magic and the rebellion. There was no point where I genuinely enjoyed these characters and want to see them succeed. The character felt 2D with no real depth which threw me off at times. When the characters don’t grip me throughout the story, the whole thing falls flat regardless of how great everything else is. I wish I could’ve enjoyed this more, I’m hoping this is just a me thing and that many others like this book. It definitely has potential!

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”I only mean that as yet, our advancement has not come at the expense of men. But it shall, It must. There is not sufficient room for us otherwise. Our true success will mean some of them lose power… and that will not come without anger and fear."

I'm not familiar with Water Margin, which this book was based on, so my review focuses solely on the book. I enjoyed this modern, feminist take on wuxia. It captures both the essence of classic tales and swift, action-packed pacing, making it a great genre addition. Huang's writing immerses us with a lyrical quality, vividly depicting the historical setting.

The exploration of power dynamics and responsibility is a thematic highlight. The book skillfully delves into justice and heroism through diverse characters like Lin Chong, Song Jiang and Lu Da. This book has a FULL cast but I was able to find connections with them all because they're written so well.

In conclusion, The Water Outlaws is a must-read for wuxia enthusiasts and those appreciating historical settings, strong characters, and action. S.L. Huang's talent and passion for multidimensional characters is clear. Can't wait to see what she writes next!

rep// Asian cast, sapphic, gender nonconforming

cw// sexual assault, torture, cannibalism

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I truly loved how female and queer-centred this novel was. However, I had a difficult time in the middle of the book to stay interested in the novel due to the pace. The first 100 and the last 50 pages were my favourite and quite fast-paced. Found the novel a little too long. Looking forward to reading other novels by S.L Huang.

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This was overall an enjoyable read, despite a rocky start for my reading. It was quite slow to start, but once the broad strokes of the story began to take shape I really began to enjoy it. Reading about these different characters finding their place in the world was interesting, especially as they are each handling their own life upsets.

There was a fair bit of adventure, something akin to magic, and of course some banditry! The more action heavy parts were quite enjoyable, but some of the slower sections were a bit harder to get to. While I appreciated the philosophical elements, the conversations and explanations felt a little tedious and I found myself losing some attention.

I enjoyed a lot of this book, but I feel it may have been the wrong time for me to fully enjoy it. I hope to revisit it again! 4⭐️

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God, this was so fun. It’s like if Iron Widow was good. Righteous feminine rage, incredible fight scenes and delightful characters. Every single character is loveable, the villains are painfully realistic, and the plot is wonderful. I love the idea behind it: anyone can be a hero if they’re brave enough to challenge the status quo. Or imaginative enough to think everything they’ve ever known could be different! I loved it!

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3.75 🌟

I almost gave up on this when part 2 began because it felt like such a slog after the brilliance that was part 1, but I persevered with much help from the audiobook, which is fantastic, and here we are. I wish I liked this more but the odd pacing really diminished my enjoyment of this. The pacing wouldn't have been as off if part 2 was more from Lu Junyi's perspective where my interest was.

I have to give the book props because it's able to make you care about this large cast of characters from the get go and distinguish them from one another with ease. The descriptions of the fight scenes were excellent and just the right length to not over stay their welcome. The emotion in this is palpable. My favourite part was the tactics, I love a character that's able to think ahead and execute a plan well especially when they're the villain.

Give me a book about women finding ways to resist the patriachy and I will always be down to read it.

CW: attemped sexual assault, torture, cannibalism.

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thank you to netgalley for the advanced reading copy. this was fantastic, just what i have come to expect from this author and look forward to carrying in my book store.

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