Cover Image: The Water Outlaws

The Water Outlaws

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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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Very powerful and well-crafted. Reminded me of why I love fantasy so much. I'll be reading more from this author for sure.

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THANK YOU for the content warnings. Gold star for that.

The writing style (a lot of narrative distance) didn't work for me personally and knowing the content I was in for, I decided to stop after chapter 1 (4%). That said, there are some cool aspects to the story and I see this going over well with the right audience.

Thank you to NetGalley and Tor for the ARC.

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The Water Outlaws is epic and action-packed. Huang's descriptions of fight scenes are cinematic and fluid, and the political and societal discussions are just as compelling. The worldbuilding and magic system is relatively simple but perfectly executed.

I do think that I would have enjoyed the book more if the side characters (of which there are many) were fleshed out further. I loved reading about the bandits of Liangshan, but never felt like they were truly a 'family', even though that is a huge component of the story. This is still a great story for anyone into historical fantasies or retellings!

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A group of mostly female outlaws, skilled in martial arts and composed of murderers, smugglers, and cutthroats fights for justice in this action-packed historical fantasy.

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The Water Outlaws is a retelling of the Chinese classic Water Margin, which follows a group of Robin Hood-esque badass women and gender-nonconforming folk. I had no background knowledge of the original tale, and I was instantly hooked.

The Water Outlaws follows numerous POVs, which really adds to the story for me. You have a wealthy, intelligent woman who attempts to use her knowledge and wealth to help the society around her. Another is a person who grew up struggling to get by, and had to break a few laws along the way to do so. Our main character is a martial arts expert who respects the society she exists in, until one day she is unexpectedly accused of a crime she did not commit. Huang does a fantastic job of using these main POVs, along with our numerous side characters with different life experiences, to show how patriarchy really does affect everybody in some way or another.

I absolutely adored this book. The magic system was so interesting, and I wanted to stay in this world that Huang created for as long as possible. It was so interesting seeing how these different characters with different backgrounds and motivations interacted in this world so differently for the same ultimate goal of just making the world a better place. I am so excited to get a physical copy of this book, and I will be telling everyone I know to read it!

Thank you to Tor and NetGalley for this ARC in exchange for an honest review!

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Absolutely epic feminism. This is empowering. It made me want to conquer and spread equality everywhere. It is truly inspiring.

This book feels like a classic, but it boasts modern ideas and deals with timeless issues, particularly for women, but really any gender or sexuality.

I loved this so much!

Out August 22, 2023!

Thank you, Netgalley and Publisher, for this Arc!

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Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the eARC of this novel. 4.5/5 stars.

Look, for this being an anticipated read, it did not disappoint. I was drawn to it simply because of the COVER (like GORGEOUS) and the title and then you read the synopsis and it's immediately bandits and fighting against the patriarchy and gender/sexuality norms while tying in martial arts and some magic/spiritual elements. Lin Chong is the main character and her life is turned upside down after being accused of a murder attempt by a man who was bested by her...and then tried to kill her...and then Lu Da saves her (a chaotic force of an adopted little sister) and suddenly Lin Chong's morals and skills are tested when she finds a home in the group of the bandits.

But wait! The man who was bested isn't done and another man comes trying to create the power of the gods and there is alchemy and an entire war raged on 40 bandits.

It's so good, y'all. The action is written well and the world building is succinct for how much goes into it. There are SO many characters with their own stories on why they chose to live with the bandits. I loved it. My only issue is that there are some things left unfinished, like Lin Chong has children but they're only mentioned as estranged? Plus Lady Lu Junyi and some other threads where I'm like hmmmmmmmmm

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I felt very underwhelmed by Water Outlaws, but I strongly suspect it’s because I was in a bad headspace while I read it. Looked at objectively, Water Outlaws is a very good book, maybe even a great one, with lots of strong threads woven together into an impressive tapestry. The arcs of the various main and major characters are meaty, complex, and immensely satisfying, and Huang places her cast in a complicated world where concepts like right and wrong, justice and vengeance, and even good and evil are murky, all but impossible to define, and sometimes heartbreakingly fluid. In that it’s painfully realistic.

But there’s definitely an element of wish fulfilment and tongue-in-cheek fun winding through the book too, with marvellousIy over-the-top, magical martial arts allowing for anime-esque battles with incredible visuals. And if many writers struggle to write great battle scenes, I can assure you that Huang is not one of them; both the light-hearted examples of supernatural mastery and the dark, desperate fights for freedom are, frankly, spectacular.

This is far from a bloodless book; many of the themes and topics it deals with are ugly and painful, and Huang doesn’t gloss over the viciousness and death that are an inevitable part of fighting for your right to exist. The successes of the bandits mean death for their enemies – there’s no getting around that – and that isn’t pretty. But it shouldn’t be.

(I do wish there’d been some acknowledgement that the Empire’s soldiers are really just cogs in the machine; that it’s a tragedy, and an evil, that they have to die because the people commanding them are rotten, rather than because of any crimes, or even choices, of their own. Instead they were turned into a faceless horde, which was kind of surprising given how much the rest of the book critiques the system they’re all trapped in.)

I was under the impression that Water Outlaws was going to be massively queer and feature a whole lot of gender fuckery, and that’s not really the case? We have several very minor nonbinary characters, and a major POV character is sapphic, but that’s it. And that’s fine, but I just wanted to give a head’s up to anyone else who had the same wrong idea about what they’re in for here. (Although I guess you could argue that pretty much the entire cast is made up of unfeminine women? That’s not an argument I would buy, though.)

Regardless, I thing Water Outlaws succeeds at being exactly what it wants to be – an adventure story that doesn’t try to pretend the world is a simple place; entertaining as hell while leaving you with plenty to think about; and, somehow, a book that manages to feel straightforward despite its crunchy complexity. If it wasn’t quite to my taste, that doesn’t change my enthusiastic recommendation. Definitely receives the Sia stamp of approval!

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3.5 stars!

The Water Outlaws contains fascinating mythology, fluid writing, interesting character journies, evocative writing that got you raging, pitiful, vengeful, and interesting character dynamics. My main con with the story is that it's hard to feel attached to the band of bandits since the story jumps around a lot since there are many characters to explore at the same time. So it made the middle a bit hard to get through and very easy for me to stop reading the story. Overall, likeable to finish.

Thanks to Netgalley and Tor for providing me with the e-ARC/DRC in exchange for an honest review.

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Unfortunately, I never quite clicked with this book. I do think it will find an audience with other readers, but it ended up not being for me.

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4/5 stars
Recommended if you like: Wuxia fantasy, action adventure, renegade heroes, political intrigue

This review has been posted to Goodreads as of 7/17 and has been posted to my blog and Instagram as of 7/30.

TW: attempted sexual assault

This book is interesting because the characters, by and large, don't turn out to be who you think they're going to be. I don't mean in a bait and switch kind of way or that the characters experience growth, but rather a realistic way. The characters themselves have their own self-conceptions about who they are and what they would do in certain circumstances, just like we form perceptions of the characters, and then over the course of the book, those self-perceptions are repeatedly and thoroughly challenged to get at the heart of who the character actually is. Lin Chong, for instance, has a very strict code of values and believes in both justice and the law, but as the synopsis says, she ends up as a criminal running from the empire. So how does what she's experienced and what she does next fit into her self-conception, if at all? I really enjoy how the characters answer these questions for themselves and it's interesting to see internal conflict dealt with in this manner.

The story is told in multiple POV, so we get multiple angles of the things happening both in the capital and in Liangshan. While it might seem redundant to have two POVs for both locations, I actually think it adds to the story because then we can see the various schemes and layers that are going into each move on both sides.

Lin Chong is definitely a character that grew on me. She's a straight arrow and believes the law, and empire, is just and that criminals are criminals for a reason. Unfortunately, she still struggles with the idea that the law can be wrong, that the government can be corrupt, even after she's branded a criminal. I'm not a fan of characters who think like that, especially when the corruption is right in front of them, but Lin Chong grew on me. She started to question her own line of thinking and began putting those martial arts skills to use for a good, albeit illegal, cause. Once she decides to be loyal, then she's loyal, and I liked seeing her friendships grow with the other women.

Lu Junyi is a savvy intellectual who is a friend of Lin Chong's before she has to go on the run. Surprisingly, Lu Junyi remains an important character throughout the story. When the book opens, Lu Junyi is a socialite who hosts salons where intellectuals can gather and debate anything from science to poetry to politics, with Lu Junyi often taking an active and liberal role in these meetings. As the book goes on, however, she's faced with needing to put that knowledge to use in a dangerous endeavor. Like Lin Chong, she has to examine who she thinks she is and who she actually is.

Lu Da is introduced as a friend of Lu Junyi's but ends up becoming sworn-sisters with Lin Chong. In contrast to the other two women, Lu Da is brasher and more impulsive, interested more getting things done than in thinking things over thenacting. She's an exceptionally loyal character and willing to fight to the end to protect those she cares about. Lu Da is also someone who isn't afraid of owning up to their mistakes. At times her narrative did make her feel younger than she actually is, like a child in an adult's body, which I wasn't a fan of.

Wu Yong is another bandit with Liangshan and is the major strategist of the group. While we did get her POV, it was hard to fully grasp her plans and motivations since so much was left unsaid. I didn't really like her at first, but once we got a peek inside her head, I ended up liking Wu Yong a lot more. She has, as mentioned, a tactician's mind and I liked seeing how she schemed and came up with contingency upon contingency.

Cai Jing is the grand chancellor for the empire and is really a mixed bag. He's definitely not a good person, but he's also not totally unlikable (which is kind of shocking). He fully believes that everything he's doing is for the good of the empire, which makes him a dangerous enemy to have. And like Wu Yong, he's good at planning for multiple contingencies. With him as one of the antagonists, I really did question whether the Liangshan Bandits could/would win.

The last 20% or so is probably my favorite. There's a lot going on there but it's fast paced and interesting. I liked the battle in particular since we get to see a lot of different strategies brought out and it's really the only major showdown in the book, so I enjoyed being able to root for the bandits. I will say that I think this book could've been shorter. It was hard for me to get going and the action doesn't really pick up until ~40-50% of the way through. I would've liked to see some of the earlier parts compressed so that we can get to the main plot faster.

The science bits were kind of hard for me to follow. There was a lot of technical work going on and some of the speakers weren't always coherent, so I had difficulty understanding what was happening. I know what the end goal of the experiments was, but I suppose I'm kind of confused still about what exactly the scientists were doing and how they were doing it.

Overall this is a good book, particularly if you're looking for an action/adventure. Some parts of it dragged and I found some parts hard to follow, but the Liangshan Bandits definitely make up for it and I enjoyed reading their parts.

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S. L. Huang writes a fantastic action-packed story in The Water Outlaws with a gender bent legend that feels like the best action and war movies or books that I have read. Huang has phenomenal character development as well as atmosphere and dialogue that feels realistic.

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It's a bit odd to finish an nearly 500 page book and want more. But I did. The action scenes are fantastic and incredibly well realized. S.L. Huang is *fantastic* at writing fight scenes that feel like watching a movie and that skill makes me want even more battles. The characters here are also so dang loveable. I want to protect the Flower Monk's sweet innocent joy so she can happily murder all who would harm her family. And that makes me want more of the characters sitting around talking about their feelings. Just fun on many levels.

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I enjoyed this book. The characters were well thought out and the plot was paced in a way that made sense. I would recommend this book to others and would enjoy reading other novels by this author.

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I'm not usually a reader of novels in the fantasy genre, but was intrigued by the Chinese wuxia inspiration behind "The Water Outlaws". I'm glad I took the risk though, as it was quite the adventure!

The novel centers on a few primary characters, starting with Lin Chong, a female arms instructor that serves under the Imperial Army. Despite being a loyal and steadfast soldier, she's taken advantage of and labeled a traitor, and immediately imprisoned with a potential death sentence looming. Thanks to her friend Lady Lu, she barely escapes an attempt on her life and is taken by her student Lu Da into a clan of female bandits known as the Lianshang haojie. We're introduced to additional leaders and fighters here, including the poet Song Jiang and the "King" Chao Gai, and in spite of her initial reservations, Lin Chong learns more about their cause and their discontent with the emperor and agrees to help them. Lady Lu, on the other hand, has been roped into the secret agenda within the palace and their ultimate goal...

It's clear from the very start that S.L. Huang is an adept writer and I enjoyed her prose and writing voice. Different characters' perspectives and voices are clear across passages (I especially enjoyed the wit and humor in Lu Da's sections) and despite the number of characters that are introduced, it never feels rushed and we're given sufficient context and background on who they are. I thoroughly enjoyed the action and fighting passages, as well as the nods to alchemy and science, as they're beautifully described and come off lyrical, almost poetic, at times. The separate storylines are built up well so that when they do converge, it doesn't feel jarring or disjointed. As a Chinese-American woman, it was also just incredibly cool to see such a female-heavy cast of AAPI characters with nods to LGBTQ+ influences leading this storyline.

If I had any critiques of "The Water Outlaws", it was just that this was much longer than I initially anticipated' despite the Kindle version noting a page count of 400, this read closer to a 500-600 page novel. This could have been split into 2 separate novels, but just a word of caution to future readers that this is not a short read! Nonetheless very excited for when this novel will be released next month!

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The Water Outlaws is the first novel I have read by S.L. Huang. Not only did the cover look enticing, but the description of the novel also sounded incredibly unique. I haven’t read the inspiration material, The Water Margin, to be able to compare the two to see if this is a good retelling or not. Since I didn’t read it, I, instead, read this story on its own without comparison. For those that read the original, may have different opinions than me. It is described to include bandits of ungovernable gender all set in ancient China during the Song Dynasty. The story follows Lin Chong, a respected arms instructor, who is training the emperor’s army. She is eventually recruited by the Bandits of Liangshan, who are a group of outlaws who want to bring down the empire. With Lin experiencing both sides of the empire, it is a great story about the power dynamics.

While Lin Chong is the primary character in the story, there is a great balance between the author keeping the focus on her and highlighting the secondary characters. This story has multiple POV without giving all of the characters their own. There were a few moments where I wanted more as I enjoyed every character, but I think the author found a nice balance. There are many including Lin Chong’s friend, Lu Junyi, and some of the bandits, Song Jiang Wu Yong, and Lu Da. There are a lot of journeys of growth in this story, but as expected, Lin’s was the strongest. She follows the law, but also struggles with the idea that the laws could be wrong. Since this is a standalone, there is only so much time to explore the characters so I was left wanting more as there is still so much that could be explored. The same could be said for the plot as I saw opportunities where this could have been expanded into a duology or trilogy. Overall, this was a great novel that was well worth the read.

**I give a special thank you to Netgalley and the publisher, Tordotcom, for the opportunity to read this entertaining novel. The opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.**

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Thank you to Tor Dot Com Publishing and NetGalley for sending me this ARC.

What attracted me to this novel was its synopsis; the promise of action and court intrigue and it absolutely delivered. My favorite section of the novel is undoubtedly Part II: Liangshang; the bandits of Liangshang are a fascinating group that read like anti-hero Robin Hoods. I wish there was more time spent with them, not just for readers to develop a stronger connection to the group but also for Lin Chong's growth and familial place within the group. I'm counting down the days till this is officially released so that I can add it to my personal library.

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This was a fantastic read. I devoured the plot, story, characters, and the world building was executed flawlessly. I fell in love with this authors writing and I was entranced by the flow. This was so vivid and magical.

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This is a retelling of the Chinese classic Water Margin, I know nothing about that story but it's very important to mention as this author has wrote it by flipping the genders. The primary character here is Lin Chong, a woman who has become a Master Arms Instructor of the Imperial Guard. Cool, right? Well, things go wrong for her, and she has to make some hard choices and sacrifices. The author has left a note that warns this is intentionally gloriously violent which honestly made me more excited and this truly did not disappoint. This is a fantastic author who writes memorable stories and that's the case for this new release.

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