There are some stories that are just so good that, even centuries later, we still tell them. We still tell the stories of Achilles and Odysseus, Beowulf and Hamlet, Scheherazade and Mulan. Regretfully, I wasn’t familiar with the stories S.L. Huang retells in The Water Outlaws beyond knowing that the characters are gender-flipped retellings from the Chinese Classic Water Margin. Now that I’ve read this action-packed story of impossible odds, I hope Huang brings us more from China’s literary tradition. Gosh, it sounds so stuffy when I say it like that! I blame the fact that I work with academics and read their articles all the time. The Water Outlaws is the opposite of stuffy. It’s a wild ride full of supernatural martial arts, injustice, alchemy, friendship, and so much more.
We meet Lin Chong on an ordinary day, as she works with her small class of women studying martial arts. Lin Chong is a respectable woman who holds the position of master arms instructor in the Imperial Army, a rare post for a woman, and she’s fought for everything she has. We even get to see how when a new recruit, Lu Da, shows up thinking that she already knows everything she needs to know about fighting thanks to the god’s tooth she possesses. Even though a god’s tooth allows its user to access incredible strength, speed, and stamina, it doesn’t make people invincible—as Lin Chong quickly proves. We also get to see Lin Chong as a fiercely loyal protector when she learns that her friend, Lady Lu Junyi, has a meeting with a man who should never be left alone with a woman. Unfortunately for Lin Chong, her protective instincts land her in prison on a trumped-up charge. It’s the first injustice we see, but it’s far from the last in The Water Outlaws.
The further we get into The Water Outlaws the more we—and Lin Chong—learn that the great Song Dynasty has gone rotten. After her attempts to keep Lady Lu safe lead to her banishment, Lady Lu rescues Lin Chong right back by dispatching Lu Da to snatch Lin Chong from her sentence at a distant labor camp and escort her to Mount Liang, where she can hopefully live out her days in safety. This might have worked if the man Lin Chong insulted hadn’t been one of the Emperor’s favorites. Or if the man hadn’t been the sort to never let anything go. Or if the people on Mount Liang hadn’t turned out to be an amazing band of woman bandits who aren’t afraid to steal from the only man in the Imperial government more insane that the one who threw Lin Chong in prison.
There is far too much in The Water Outlaws to sum up. My last two paragraphs barely take us out of the first few chapters. Suffice it to say, the plot of this book is relentless. Huang kept me breathless as Lin Chong’s new companions cook up scheme after scheme to keep themselves safe when they are targeted by the vindictive might of the Imperial army. They might have been bandits when they started but the women and non-binary folk of Mount Liang transform into something like freedom fighters, especially when their poet-in-residence turns her pen to telling their story to the people at large. How can we not cheer for an underdog? Especially when they have right on their side?
The experience of reading The Water Outlaws was utterly captivating. Honestly, I could barely put this book down as I read it because I just had to know how Lin Chong and the rest managed to get out of yet another possibly fatal predicament. Huang’s retelling is so rich, so full of interesting characters, and so packed with spectacular fights that I think any other reader will be just as hooked as I was. I can’t praise this book highly enough.
Having loved S.L. Huang's previous work I was excited not only to see what came next and how their writing had developed but also to experience something a bit more long-form.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Water Outlaws, the story and world created in these pages is emotive, exciting and extremely readable.
I had no previous context for the story on which this work is based so I thank SL Huang for sending me down a research rabbit hole, I'm excited to learn more about this work and others like it. In a market somewhat oversaturated by fairytale retellings it was good to experience something a little different.
I thought that the overall plot of the book was very interesting, I liked the way the action split between locations and we got to see all different kinds of scenes from more scientific inquiry scenes to combat training sequences. You can feel the breadth of SL Huang's interest alongside the depth of research that must have gone into creating such a book.
I think this book does require you to have a semi-decent memory for names as I found it tricky at times to keep track of who was who - but that is a common issue I have with all fantasy works so your mileage may vary! There is a character guide helpfully placed at the start of the book so those with physical copies should have no issue flicking back and forth.
Overall I would definitely recommend The Water Outlaws, particularly to those feeling burned out on the usual humdrum retellings we've been seeing for a while!
I received a free digital review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
This was an obvious book request for me! For one thing, the cover is absolutely phenomenal! It’s one of those covers where you buy the book and display it face out on the shelves just to show it off. I was also very intrigued by the book description, what with its talk of rebel women, outlaws fighting for the betterment of those without power of their own. And, to my delight, it followed through on all of its promises!
Now, I know that this book is a reimagination of another classic Chinese story, “Water Margin” and that this is a gender-swapped version of that tale. But not being familiar with the original, I can’t really speak to how this compares to that one. However, I will say that gender swapping stories is not a simple change. One can’t simply write “King Arthur” but Arthur is a woman. No, there is much more to be done to successfully reimagine a story in this way. And while I can’t speak to the original, this book does an excellent job of centering its tale on the unique places in society that the women and other outlaws are struggling against. The limitations placed around them, the definitions foisted upon them. What’s more impressive was how neatly these larger themes were woven within a story that is very action-oriented.
From the very first moment, the book kicks off to a quick start with Lin Chong, an arms instructor, highlighting her fighting prowess in a practice skirmish with a new recruit. I loved the way the action of this fight (and all of the action scenes that followed) was described. It was easy to picture the beautiful, artistic, and yet lethal fighting scenes that were seen in movies like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and the like. Of course, once Lin Chong joins the bandit group, the action expands to larger scenes with much higher stakes, all of which I found equally thrilling.
I also really liked the overall writing style. Like I said, there’s a lot of action in this story, and it takes a particular skill to write out these scenes in a way that allows readers to fully grasp the scope and scale of what’s happening, all without losing sight of any main characters involved. There was also a sort of “meaty” style to the writing that I’ve come to associate with some of my favorite fantasy fiction. I can’t quite describe what I mean by that, only that I know it when I see it, and it always promises to lead to a great reading experience. What’s more, I was surprised by how funny this book was. Right from the start, I found myself chuckling away at the clever dialogue and smart observations.
The only real issue I had was a bit of disconnect I felt to the characters themselves. Usually, character issues are an instant black mark against a book for me, but this one was so strong in every other area that it wasn’t until halfway through the book that I realized I wasn’t feeling the same sense of connection to the characters that I usually expect to feel with a book I’m enjoying. For some reason, perhaps the fast pace or the “meaty” style of writing, I felt a bit distanced from the characters and their personal stories. Perhaps a bit more could have been done to shine a light on the inner emotions and workings of the characters throughout the story. But that aside from that, an issue that I didn’t even notice until halfway through the story because I was so caught up in the action, I really liked this one.
Rating 8: Full of the fierceness and power that comes from all groups pushed to the side by society, “The Water Outlaws” is a fantasy story sure to delight.
(Link will go live Aug 18)
From the minute I started THE WATER OUTLAWS, and each time I picked it up again after putting it down, I was sucked right into the story. It’s a mix of power plays, magical (and somewhat scientific) forces, camaraderie and unlikely heroes that entertained me greatly. There were moments that made me feel like cheering, others that made me angry and still others that made me sad; and generally, the fact that this story stirred up some of my own feelings already feels like a reason to commend it.
The only thing that prevents this one from being rated higher is the fact that I would have liked to feel like I’d gotten to really connect with this cast of characters even more, though it does makes sense in a way to only get to know them to a certain extent given the large cast and the number of moving plot pieces.
Oh, how I loved this.
It's a wuxia re-telling of a Chinese folklore story, but it's gender bent and it is glorious. There's lots of blood, and violence and revenge, and ladies kicking ass. I love those things (well, blood and violence depend on the situation) and I really loved him here (because the righteous anger was very RIGHT if you know what I'm sayin'). Anyway, if you like to have fun reading your fantasy, this will get you there. It had big adventure and swashbuckling energy and I really enjoyed it.
It could've been shorter - it sagged a bit towards the middle, and I really would've liked the opportunity to spend more time with Lu Da, but I'll probably live. I also could've done without the epilog, but I get it.
4 stars - I really liked it and will widely recommend it to fantasy readers, especially those that like Zen Cho or wuxia.
holy crap holy crap holy crap - my feminist heart is beating out of my chest.
This book is spectacular, it's outstanding, it's queer, and it's packed with enough action to make your head spin. ALSO - Can we take a moment for the COVER?! absolutely beautiful. As someone who practices martial arts I found this exceptionally beautiful and felt really special to me. But, that would not differ from non martial-arts practicing readers either. The FMC you love and really root for, the villains are truly horrible. I cannot say enough good things about The Water Outlaws.
Thank you so much to Netgalley and Tor for giving me the opportunity to read one of my most anticipated books of the year early!
As someone who studied this book's source material in college (East Asian Studies major!), I was so excited to read a queer and gender-bent retelling of the famous classic. I love queer and feminist retellings on their own, but when you add unhinged, morally grey womxn into the mix, and make it a wuxia story, I am absolutely hooked. This was definitely the case with this story as well.
I loved how all the storylines separated and reconvened throughout the book and how even I, as someone who's read the original, was kept guessing until the very end. I loved the commentary on women's 'place' in society and the fear of what is different or unknown that remains so pertinent to today.
Any fans of wuxia stories, from C-dramas to MXTX, will no doubt love this retelling as much as I did.
Thank you to Tordotcom and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review!
The Water Outlaws is SL Huang’s take on the Chinese classic Water Margin, which is about a group of bandits who steal from the rich and fight a corrupt empire. Obviously, the heart of this is much the same, except this has more women and gender nonconformity and is way queerer. I loved the story Huang told and her take on ungovernable gender and antiheroes. I found the large cast of characters to be quite compelling and I loved that Huang didn’t limit the book to a single character’s perspective. Though at times it might’ve been a bit challenging to follow—again, it’s a large cast, and there are multiple third person perspectives in a single chapter sometimes—I do think it added a certain richness to the storytelling that made this shine.
There’s a lot going on in this—if anything, I wish it was longer and that the middle had a bit more room to breathe—and it can be kind of hard to keep things straight at first (in this regard, I think I personally would have benefitted from a print copy, but things did click after a minute) but honestly this is the kind of book I can see myself re-reading time and time again and still find something new to mull over. I loved the bandits, I loved the story, I loved the world Huang painted. There’s some weird stuff going on, too, like alchemy and ghosts and magic, but mostly this is a sprawling epic about revenge and oppression and eating the rich. The action in this was so good and I loved how everyone had their own different viewpoint to how things should be done: it really felt like a family full of squabbling children who could still pull it together at the drop of a hat, which I enjoyed. And, in any case, it was fun to see a cast of bandits that really felt like bandits, since the Bandits of Liangshan are full of murders, cannibals, outcasts, and some people who literally did nothing wrong. They were wacky! And charming! And fun!
In any case, I loved this! It had a cinematic quality to it that I think made it easy to envision while reading, and it had a cast that was really great to spend time with. I had a lot of personal hype about this book before I read it and I’m glad it lived up to it.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
This is a retelling of the Chinese classic Water Margin, and if you think you know antiheroes, you don't know antiheroes until you know classic Chinese lit antiheroes. These people do not let up on the antihero. The author's note warns you in the front: "gloriously violent," it says, and that is true. Torture, one attempted sexual assault, cannibalism: yep. It's all here, and Huang does not look away. If that's not something you're up for, this is not the book for you. Take the content warnings seriously here, people.
It's martial arts fantasy. It's got a big cast of--not brothers, not quite that, this is sisters mostly, siblings but mostly sisters. It's queer and female and full of people who aren't fitting the mold, going off and becoming bandits and challenging the oppressive empire, and some of them would really like to tell themselves that they're doing it in an honorable, upright way, but they're not, they're bandits, they do bandit things, they steal and they maim and they kill, they fight among themselves, they politic and they lie. They mess with alchemical forces beyond their ken, or at least that should have been beyond people's ken. They mess up a lot, and sometimes they mess each other up. They mess up the work that their healer does, much to her annoyance.
They make themselves heroes. They make the wrong people gods. They make an immense amount of trouble, not least for each other. And there's nothing quite like them, but you know, there probably should be.
The Water Outlaws is such an incredible examination of womanhood and survivorship. It was incredibly thoughtful and literary in its approach, and Huang knocked it out of the park. A really moving, impactful read.
To preface this review, I will say that I am not familiar with Water Margin, the Chinese classic that this book is based off of, so my review won't offer any insights into the retelling/reimagining aspect of the book, but is purely based on the book itself.
To keep it concise, I really loved so much of this book. It's a fantastic modern (and feminist) take on the wuxia genre, but contains all the heart, charm, and nostalgia for some of the more classic wuxia tales that I grew up with. It's fast-paced and action-packed, and I think that it's a great entry into the genre. I've read one other book by Huang in the past (Burning Roses), and I do distinctly remember really enjoying her writing style then as well, but her writing style here is just excellent. It has a sort of lyrical quality to it that lends itself to the historical vibes, and the descriptions of the setting really make you feel fully immersed in the world.
Thematically, there is so much to enjoy here. The way that Huang explores power dynamics and the responsibility of wielding power in this story is so well done. Throughout all this, the book constantly is asking the question of what does justice mean? What does it mean to be a hero? Who gets to be a hero? And throughout our entire cast of characters, we get to see the answer to this question manifest in different people in very different ways, and I think it was executed beautifully.
That brings me to my favourite part about this book - the characters. This is, by far, The Water Outlaws' greatest strength. While Lin Chong is undoubtedly our main character, we also get to see the perspectives of a variety of different characters, including a number of her fellow bandits (Song Jiang and Lu Da are my favourites), the antagonists, and one of my favourite characters, Lu Junyi, a scholar and socialite who is a friend of Lin Chong. If you, like me, are obsessed with big, beefy, and brainless women (basically a female himbo) - Lu Da was made for us. I'm surprised at how much I got to know each of these characters by the end of the book, despite there being so many of them, and not that many pages.
My main criticism of the book is honestly just that it is too short for my personal taste. I don't think this will be an issue for every reader - if you enjoy fast-paced stories, you probably would love the book as is, but for me personally, I just felt like I needed more time with our characters than we got. I feel the same way about this book as I do with films - it does what it needs to do within the given time frame, and what we are presented with is incredible, but I just personally prefer watching TV shows where I can spend 10+ hours with my cast of characters as opposed to just a few. I don't think this is a flaw of the book, but just something that comes down to personal preference.
All in all, I would highly recommend The Water Outlaws to anyone who enjoys wuxia, historical settings, an ensemble cast of characters, and beautifully written action scenes. This book has definitely solidified S.L. Huang as an author that I will continue to keep an eye on, and I'll be looking to read the rest of her backlist sooner rather than later.
CW: sexual assault, torture, cannibalism
Lin Chong is an expert arms instructor for the Emperor, she trains soldiers in weaponry as well as women. She has kept her head down, obeyed the laws, and tried to just do her job.... but then one day a powerful man assaults her and then tries to frame her for a crime since she did not give in to him... and now she is disgraced, tattooed as a criminal and on the run from an Imperial Marshall who will stop at nothing to see her dead. While on the road she is nearly killed but then finds herself being recruited by the Bandits of Liangshan, a group of mountain outlaws who seek justice... but are also murderers, thieves, smugglers and cutthroats themselves. Together they will take down the empire. This is definitely a good read for fans of stories inspired by classic martial arts literature featuring a case of bandits who seek justice and won’t let their gender stop them from fighting for women’s rights. This one personally just didn’t connect with me as much as I would have hoped. It is told through various POVS, and had a lot going on from court politics, bandit adventures, schemes, and so much more. It definitely gave the vibe of like a tv series with so many things going on and different character’s stories being connected to one another. I just didn’t find myself connecting with the story or characters and it definitely was a “its me not you” thing.
*Thanks Netgalley and Tor Publishing Group, Tordotcom for sending me an arc in exchange for an honest review*
Thank you so much Tor for sending me an ARC!
This is one of my most anticipated reads this year and I was so excited to get a copy of this! And I love how thick the book is which added to my tremendous excitement.
Lush worldbuilding, diverse cast of characters, immersive reading experience, really everything I could ever love in a book.
Definitely recommending to my followers!
Readers will be lining up for publication day!! One of the best books I have read mixing old Chinese literature with strong female power and relationships. Have we forgotten old stories of female outlaws? Author S. L. Huang's The Water Outlaws will make readers remember, and also create legendary new female outlaws to grow old with. Readers will see these female characters as barbarians, and true heroes as well. Well done & will be HIGHLY recommended in my library! Five of five strong stars.
I don't know the original, Water Margin, of which this is a "genderspun retelling", so I can't say where Huang is riffing or inventing wholesale. But I can say that this is an epic, fabulous, fascinating and hugely enjoyable story.
Also, all you aspiring writers who look to Robert Jordan or GRRM? Look here instead. This could easily have been spun out as a trilogy. In terms of plot, it wouldn't even have been that hard. (In terms of writing - that's a different question.) Instead, Huang has written a concise story that doesn't even FEEL concise - it feels sprawling in the best possible way. It's well under 500 pages but has lazy, reflective moments; multiple points of view; a series of adventures; and an appropriately climactic conclusion.
The primary narrator is Lin Chong, a woman who has become a Master Arms Instructor of the Imperial Guard - an achievement that's not quite unique, but certainly makes her notable. Through no fault of her own, things go wrong for her, and she is left to make choices that she really doesn't want to.
Another narrator is Lu Junyi, described in the Dramatis Personae as a "wealthy socialite and intellectual" - she holds salons and owns a printing press, so you get the idea. She, too, experiences some unexpected events, and is also left with unsavoury choices.
And then there's Cai Jing. Chancellor of the Secretariat, second only to the Emperor, and really deeply unpleasant. Having his point of view was a truly intriguing choice from Huang; maybe it was something from the original story she chose to keep. It certainly adds to the experience of the story, and problematises some aspects. At the same time, his attitudes and actions reinforced the conclusions I came to about the government of this society.
Finally, although they're not given POVs, the majority of the cast are the bandits of Liangshin. Drawn together through adversity, luck, a lack of options, and sometimes deliberate action, they're something of a Merry Men of Sherwood - but mostly women and genderqueer, with even more dubious backgrounds in the main. I loved almost every single one of them.
And the story? Revenge, the struggle against oppression, preventing bad things from happening, etc. Spikes of climax before the final denouement, challenges and resolution along the way - it's well paced: not a cliff-hanging page-turner every chapter, but with a momentum that meant I always wanted to keep reading. There's ghosts, and weird tech-or-is-it-magic, and oh-that's-more-like-magic, thus sliding into the sf/fantasy genre - it's not quite 'blink and you'll miss it' but it's very much not the focus of the narrative, although integral to it.
The Author's Note reflects on the fact that this is "intentionally, gloriously violent", and that's true - but it's not every page, and it's not gratuitous in the "can I make a reader feel really ill" way.
This book is SO GOOD, you are all going to love it! The central premise -- lawful good heroine discovers that actually the system is designed to protect corrupt and awful men and must turn to honorable banditry in the company of other women to survive -- is of course delightful in and of itself, but I really appreciate that Huang's version of this story is more complex than it sounds at first. Some of the other bandits are good, some are less so; some are manipulating the people around them in search of what they believe to be the higher good. The stakes escalate abruptly and so does the level of violence. Your faves are not safe in this book! But it also feels good and triumphant, despite the beloved characters we've lost, at the end. There was no point where I wanted to put the book down (as you can see from the fact I finished the book in two days). I have not read The Water Margin, so I can't say if I'm missing out on appreciating the specific references, but I *can* say that I enjoyed the story tremendously despite not knowing the original. Despite the very different setting, the vibes of this book felt very similar to one of my childhood favorite books, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, and I think if that's a nostalgic favorite of yours as well you should definitely pick The Water Outlaws up.
I requested a digital copy in order to sample the prose on my phone (since I don't have a eReader) before requesting a physical copy for review. My review will be based on the physical ARC I read (if I qualify)
The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang is a thrilling and action-packed fantasy novel that draws inspiration from a classic martial arts literature. The book follows Lin Chong, an arms instructor who trains the Emperor's soldiers in various weapons. However, when a powerful man ruins her life and turns her into a criminal, Lin Chong is forced to go on the run and ends up joining the Liangshan Bandits, a group of mountain outlaws who believe in justice for all.
Huang has created a vivid and immersive world, with well-developed characters and an engaging plot that keeps readers hooked from start to finish. The story is fast-paced and action-packed, with plenty of fight scenes and daring escapes that will leave readers on the edge of their seats.
Lin Chong is a compelling protagonist, a strong and capable fighter who has been forced to face some harsh truths about the world she lives in. The Liangshan Bandits are a diverse and interesting group, and their interactions with Lin Chong are some of the most enjoyable parts of the book.
The Water Outlaws is a fantastic addition to the genre, and Huang's skillful writing and world-building will leave readers eagerly anticipating the next installment in this exciting new series.