Tag Archives: sl huang

The Water Outlaws, SL Huang

I read this courtesy of the publisher, Tordotcom, and NetGalley. It’s out in August 2023.

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.

Enormously fun.