Cover Image: The Water Outlaws

The Water Outlaws

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Member Reviews

AHHH, This book. A stunning and wild and gruesome story that had me gripped from the first chapter. I loved the powers that the characters possessed as well as the magical science sections from Lu Junyi. An all around fun, bloody, sad, but amazing read.

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"The Water Outlaws" by S.L Huang is a whirlwind of corrupt and morally grey characters, power-hungry leaders, unending tension, a battle of wits and magic, and a ragtag band of ninja-like women destined to take on the world. In this historical fiction, fantasy novel comes a group of women who fight for a better future where they are not abused or unjustly treated by those in power. The very same powerful leaders who enjoy making people bend and break to their will and will kill any who threaten or oppose their position in society.

Lin-Chong is an excellent fighter skilled in many weapons. Her job is to train the Emperor's soldiers. While there are those who enjoy challenging the unequal hierarchy and injustices, Lin Chong keeps her head down and does her best to fulfill her duty and go unnoticed. All it takes is one powerful man to ruin Lin Chong's good name and her future.

Labelled as a criminal and hunted down by those who want to see her dead, Lin Chong is forced to choose a fate she never would've thought of for herself. With few options, she must do what she can to survive, especially if there is a chance she might be able to clear her name. In her new life as a bandit, Lin Chong must rediscover what it means to be at a disadvantage and learn the importance of fighting for justice or else innocent people might die in the crossfire in a brutal battle for power.

This is a compelling novel about women rising up against an unjust and unequal power system to demand their own place in the hierarchy that isn't subservient and docile. This group of intellectual, witty, cutthroat women is fighting to destabilize a power structure that has been in place for years with the goal of creating a future in which those who would be sought out and imprisoned or killed by a corrupt empire can have the freedom to express themselves. They are awe-inspiring in their intellect and wit if not a little horrifying at times for their murderous capabilities and grizzly backgrounds.

"The Water Outlaws" is an epic battle for power, magic, and opportunity. Readers will easily be drawn into a world of intellectual and magical prowess that becomes more twisted and life-threatening as the story progresses. While some action scenes felt bogged down by details and conversations, the characters and world-building are so vivid and three-dimensional that readers will become invested in the plot and root for characters they both admire and maybe never thought they could respect. There is a little something for everyone in this mixed-genre story that will be enjoyed as readers embark on this chaotic journey.

Look for “The Water Outlaws” on its expected publication date of August 22nd, 2023 and save it to your TBR’s now! A big thank you to NetGalley and Tor Publishing Group (Todotcom) for providing me with a free e-arc of this book and for the opportunity to share my honest opinion in this review.

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I’m so glad I was able to read this, it had everything that I was expecting from the cover and from S. L. Huang. I really enjoyed the concept overall and how it works together with the characters. The characters were beautifully written and I’m so glad I was able to read this. It had a great historical and scifi elements going on and I can’t wait to read more from S. L. Huang.

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This book had all the components of a great LGBTQ+ Asian folklore remix turned into an epic high fantasy with great wuxia battle scenes: Great worldbuilding, interesting characters, a great plot, fantastic prose, fantastic battle choreography, and the exposition is deftly woven into both the narrative and the dialogue and never dumped.

So why am I rating this book three stars? Because this book simply failed to make me care about any of it. There were so many characters I never got a chance to get invested in any of them, we got to the home of the Liangshan bandits and I didn’t ever feel very invested in their mission, we didn’t get to meet the Emperor until close to the end of the book so whether or not he actually cared about what his subordinates were doing was always a toss-up (at least to me), and I truly didn’t understand the character of Lu Junyi. I didn’t understand her motives, her goals, her aims, or her emotions. To be honest, there are so many characters it feels as if we don’t ever get to feel any of their emotions unless it’s pain, anger, or anxiety.

So what I felt like I read was a plot-and-atmopshere driven slog of a nearly 500 page novel I felt no investment in. I didn’t care what happened to anyone in it or what the outcome was.

So why did I keep reading? I genuinely like Huang’s prose, her worldbuilding, her imagery, the battle scenes, and the work she was doing with alchemy and physics. It was interesting enough for me to slog through. I wouldn’t read it again and I personally don’t recommend it.

I was provided a copy of this title by NetGalley and the author. All thoughts, opinions, views, and ideas expressed herein are mine and mine alone. Thank you. Personal policy dictates that this review will not appear in my social media accounts due to receiving a rating of three stars or less.

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If you like:
- Chinese inspired epic fantasy
- Bandits rebelling against injustice
- Women with swords
- Found family of morally questionable people

Then you have to read The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang!!

Lin Chong is such a stellar main character. Her corruption but also growth arc is masterfully done. She maintains a lawful alignment but her perception of the world and what is right changes.

There is a large cast of side characters or people who are mentioned only a couple times but their connections need to be remembered. It was a lot to try and keep track of but there is a dramatis personae to help. Lu Junyi and Wo Yung were two of the side characters that really stuck out to me and I enjoyed their POVs a lot!

Huang has an incredibly engaging writing style that transports you into the world. It has that feeling of a classic story but with expertly added queer representation and modern opinions. The book starts fast but then slows a fair bit for the 20-40% bit but then really picks up at a steady pace for the rest of the book to the point where I was on the edge of my seat by the end.

The magic system, thought clearly very important to the plot, was not the focus of my attention in a really good way. Like it didn’t feel out of place or forced in any way. The gods teeth were presented in a very scientific way and it made them feel really natural.

This is absolutely a must read for all fantasy lovers and the audiobook is narrated perfectly by Emily Woo Zeller!!

Thanks to Tor for the eARC!

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This is a genderbent/queer retelling of Water Margin. All in all, I would rate 3.5 stars.
The fight scenes are some of the best I’ve read in a book (you could tell the author especially knew what they were doing when writing those scenes- those can be the most difficult scenes to navigate.)
Very visually pleasing!
I think since this is a retelling, there was some disconnect with some of the characters. The pacing in the middle was somewhat off, in my opinion.

Thank you to NetGalley who sent me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Loved the badass female characters. The scenery and atmosphere of the boom were icing on top. Really enjoyed the immersive reading experience. I hope a character list gets added before publication. It’s a lot to remember!

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This was great! It’s both an action packed martial arts book, and a book that takes a deep look at corruption in government, feminist rage and power, and found family. The martial arts part was entertaining, especially with fantasy elements and some supernatural powers. But what really made me enjoy the book was the examination of these women and all the different ways they approached wielding power and finding ways to make changes in their world. Lin Chong was the quintessential “keep your head down, work within the power structure, and ask for tiny changes” woman. Until she was forced to see how powerless that truly made her. Watching her growth throughout the book as she comes to embrace larger changes and more overt revolution against the corrupt men in power was great. Yes her conservatism was frustrating at points, but her struggles were so authentic. I really loved the eclectic gathering of women at Lianshang. Lu Da was hilarious.
The climatic battle had me on the edge of my seat, and I loved the conclusion of the story. It felt like a well-earned triumph.

Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the requested copy to review. All opinions are my own.

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I received an e-galley of The Water Outlaws by S. L. Huang from Tor Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I have so many mixed feelings about The Water Outlaws because when I think about it, I feel like this story had all the elements that I would generally love. But for some reasons, I had to drag myself through the story; at one point, even wondering whether I should just put it down and move on to a different book. I'm really glad that I didn't and at a certain point, I made it through that reading slump and generally started to want to read more to find out how the story was all going to play out. And I can say that I did like the story as I finished it. But like I said, it was a book that I found myself slowly making my way through, not without struggles. If I ever get the chance to look at the reasons why - I think I'd like to revisit the story to figure out if it was the story or just me as the reader.

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Thank you to NetGalley and Tordotcom for the eARC of The Water Outlaws in exchange for my honest review!

This was an extremely thrilling ride with non-stop action! A political fantasy with martial arts sprinkled throughout, it takes political issues and the patriarchy. I liked the characters, but felt as if I never got the chance to LOVE them. This primarily was because the book had an approach that seemed to be a step back from the story. The characters helped move along the plot, but this was definitely plot driven.

Overall, I really enjoyed it but wanted MORE. I wanted to see more from our unlikely heroes.

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A fast-paced, joyful retelling of a classic Chinese novel, full of wuxia action sequences and rousing eat-the-rich antics. Huang goes maximalist here, juggling a wide range of characters and embracing their complicated dynamics -- and it works just like a summer blockbuster ought to. This one is fun fun fun.

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I wasn't expecting this to be a book centered around a corrupt government but there you go. I did enjoy all the lgbtq characters as I don't read alot of books with them in it. Parts of the book did drag but I did enjoy it.

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This was a very cool book that I definitely think I will need to go back and reread. I will definitely be recommending this one as well

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The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang tells the story of a group of outcasts who have found common ground in wanting to rid the empire of its corruption and restore it to its former glory. It’s an inspiring and brutal tale of heroes, anti-heroes, and villains all fighting for their version of justice. Huang adds a dash of magic and incredibly high stakes to tell a compelling story that has easily become one of my favorite books of 2023.

One act of defiance against an Imperial Marshall earns the respected arms instructor, Lin Chong, in a cell with a tattoo on her cheek and a death sentence over her head. Her friend and wealthy socialite, Lu Junyi, interferes and is able to have Lin Chong’s sentence reduced to forced labor in a work camp. However, Lin Chong doesn’t make it to the camp. Instead, she finds herself in the fierce company of The Bandits of Liangshan. The bandits take in everyone looking for a second chance, but not all members are as noble as the former Imperial instructor. With few options and a vendetta against the man who ruined her life, Lin Chong will attempt to find her place among a group of thieves, murderers, and criminals to fight against the flood of an unjust and corrupt empire.

Huang does an excellent job showcasing the horrors of powerful men and how the world bends to their whims. The story centers around a group of vigilante outlaws, so Huang quickly sets the stage to demonstrate the severe power imbalance between them and the rich men of the court. Several frightening and uncomfortable situations play out throughout the book, and I was horrified by the scenarios that Lin Chong and Lu Junyi are forced into. The characters navigate difficult situations, and oftentimes every choice leads to harm for either themselves or others. My indecisive, perfectionist brain was on fire as I thought about the choices I would make in their shoes, and I applaud Huang for capturing the difficulty and consequences of these situations.

These situations are made even better by the characters and their unaligned moral standards. It’s interesting to see the characters’ values fluctuate throughout the book, which characters change, and why they do. While there are many colorful characters with varied ideals, there are three who have the most page time and share their inner turmoil. Lin Chong does not rock the boat and has lived her life working hard and never questioned the authority surrounding her as an Imperial arms instructor. One of Lin Chong’s students, Lu Junyi, is a wealthy but knowledgeable woman who does not hide her frustration or shy away from sharing her ideas to better the empire. Then there is our sunshine himbo Lu Da, whose impulsiveness may have landed her in some tight spots but is someone who has a heart of gold and a strong sense of justice. Each woman will be tested over and over again, while the reader sits and watches the consequences of their actions play out.

The Water Outlaws is a strong standalone story. It has great pacing and multiple POVs that are interesting and contribute to the story meaningfully. The inner workings of the magic system remain vague, but the powers and incredible feats support the story well and serve as tools for both sides to manipulate. There is only one part that was unsatisfactory to me, and it was a fade-to-black ending given to one of the characters. Their story felt unfinished, especially when every other story stream wraps up nicely and flows home to a larger potential plot to carry on. As one of our more tortured and conflicted characters, maybe we are meant to sit in uncomfortable silence and think, “What now?” without any real answers as to what their future holds. I am happy to endure an ending filled with unknowns, but it does feel out of place given that every other character has a definitive end.

I was swept away by The Water Outlaws’ shifting tides of loyalty and the complicated web of tributaries that marks each character’s unique path. This book is definitely being shelved as one of my favorite reads this year, and I encourage you to pick it up and respond to the bandits’ rallying cry.

Rating: The Water Outlaws - 9.0/10

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While there was a lot I enjoyed about THE WATER OUTLAWS, unfortunately I found that the book's dry writing style, slow pacing, and abundance of one-off characters to be a bit too much. Working my way through the last half was a chore, and only a few days after finishing the book, I realized I can't recall more than a handful of characters or events.

Weirdly, the story at the core of this was definitely compelling—I loved the glimpses of alchemy and the corruption of the government officials—but there just wasn't enough to anchor me in the story, especially in regards to the characters. Even with a character directory at the beginning of the book, the sheer number of outlaws and officials and soldiers was overwhelming. Most of these named characters also had little to no effect on the events of the story, but also weren't really interesting enough as characters to justify their presence outside of that. At times, especially during the later battle sequences, it just felt like they were there to be bodies.

All-in-all, I'm pretty disappointed in this one.

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A beautiful queer historical fantasy that kept me turning page after page.

The premise? A promising weapons woman just wants to keep her job and be content. When a villain crosses her path, she must join a group of bandits to stay alive.

Stunning, sharp, poignant, and queer as hell

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Okay, I needed the screen adaptation for this YESTERDAY. This was such an action-packed book full of lovable characters and a politically driven plot that had me on the edge of my seat cheering on the bandits! There are quite a few POVs to keep up with, but it's well worth it to see how all the perspectives line up. I only wish we had some time devoted to more character growth and development.

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Thanks to Netgalley and TOR for the ARC!

When I caught wind of this Feminist Retelling of a classical Chinese text, I knew it would have high expectations to live up to. S.L. Huang managed to craft a book that lived up to my hopes and then some.

An epic that follows a dynamic cast of characters, The Water Bandits mainly tracks the fall (or perhaps, rise) of Lin Chong from an esteemed martial arts instructor in the Empire’s military to a rogue who leads a sisterhood of bandits in a quest to take power from provincial lords and place it back into the hands of the people at every turn. Similar to She Who Became the Sun or The Poppy War, but Huang definitely has a unique voice and stands plenty well without comparison to more well known works.

The highest possible praise that I can give this book, besides saying that the prose was fast paced and equally sharp witted, is that it could have worked as a trilogy but I am so glad that Huang decided to keep the structure intact as is. The pacing does NOT let up, and despite being told from multiple perspectives I was never bored or itching to get to a plot point I could tell was coming but was meandering along to get there. Every choice made, both in terms of characterization and structure, is intentional and pays off wonderfully. Despite everything publishing keeps pushing, one offs are good actually!!

My only gripe is that all of the characters we get to know are embodied and have a satisfying depth save one. Perhaps she was a last minute addition and just didn’t get the time to develop as fully as others did, but even knowing that I still was a tad disappointed with her childish characterization.

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The Water Outlaws is a queer genderbent retelling of Water Margin, one of the most famous works of Chinese literature about 108 bandits living on Mount Liang who rebel against the government. With a gorgeous cover and an author known for writing fantastic fight scenes, I was quite excited to see more retellings of Chinese literature. However, I felt a general disconnect with the characters and the pacing felt off.

I admit, I wasn’t actually familiar with Water Margin when I read this book (although I did skim the Wikipedia article after) so I treated this book as its own work. Perhaps knowing the original story, I would have had a better appreciation for how Huang re-interprets the plot and characters. In the original work, all the bandits are men, whereas in The Water Outlaws, the bandits of Mount Liang are women who’ve been failed by society in some way or other, and have found a second life in this new sisterhood. This one factor completely overhauls the motivations of the original story, and while I thought the exploration of such was interesting, it felt lacking to me.

I think The Water Outlaws suffers from the same issue a lot of retelling face: being forced to follow the same rough outline and not deviating too far from the character arcs from the original work in a way that still feels true to the re-imagined character. I think it’s here where I had the biggest struggle. These characters like Lin Chong and Wu Yong would be so interesting and then suddenly do something that felt out of character, and my guess is because of the retelling issue. Despite this book being so character-driven, I just never felt myself connecting to the actual characters and so I found it difficult to really get into the story.

That being said, the action and fights were delivered exactly as promised. Huang writes combat in a way that feels clear, one where you can picture every move a character makes and exactly where they’re positioned on the battlefield. After the first 35% or so, the story is pretty much non-stop action (they’re bandits after all). The added component of the god’s tooth, giving characters wuxia-like fighting technique, made the stakes so much higher and more fun to read.

Overall, I rate this book a 3/5. I struggled through the slow first 35% of story and it was hard to immerse myself in the story due to a lack of connection with the characters, but the action was extremely well written and the worldbuilding was both interesting and surprisingly compact.

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DNF. I really liked the premise but the writing did not work for me at all. It wouldn't be fair to the book if I finished reading and gave it a low rating.

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