Epeolatry Book Review: The Water Outlaws by S. L. Huang


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Title: The Water Outlaws
Author: S. L. Huang
Publisher: Tordotcom
Genre: Fantasy, Martial Arts
Release Date: 22nd August, 2023

Synopsis: In the jianghu, you break the law to make it your own.


Lin Chong is an expert arms instructor, training the Emperor’s soldiers in sword and truncheon, battle axe and spear, lance and crossbow. Unlike bolder friends who flirt with challenging the unequal hierarchies and values of Imperial society, she believes in keeping her head down and doing her job.


Until a powerful man with a vendetta rips that carefully-built life away.


Disgraced, tattooed as a criminal, and on the run from an Imperial Marshall who will stop at nothing to see her dead, Lin Chong is recruited by the Bandits of Liangshan. Mountain outlaws on the margins of society, the Liangshan Bandits proclaim a belief in justice—for women, for the downtrodden, for progressive thinkers a corrupt Empire would imprison or destroy. They’re also murderers, thieves, smugglers, and cutthroats.


Apart, they love like demons and fight like tigers. Together, they could bring down an empire.

What drew me to this book were the martial arts. Lin Chong is the expert fighter I, as a martial arts hobbyist in the modern day, can only dream of being. Her entire life is devoted to its study. Despite her talent and expertise, however, she is enmeshed in a deeply patriarchal society which she navigates through strict adherence to rules and hierarchy. Unfortunately, that is not enough to save her from the petty jealousies of powerful men.


Lin Chong, branded a criminal, despairs her loss of status and freedom, only to find herself caught up with the Liangshan bandits, a band of mostly female outcasts striving to build a better society.


The Liangshan bandits are the heart of the novel. They are fierce and complex. While the empire is decidedly corrupt, the bandits are hardly angels or perfect heroes. Not all former criminals are framed like Lin Chong, and some of the bandits are brutal, violent people. What draws them together is the hope of redemption and a better tomorrow. In Liangshan, everyone is given a second chance.


Lin Chong’s journey from upright citizen to rebellious bandit is well crafted. Each step is believable and despite such a drastic shift in her allegiance, she maintains her moral compass. The bandits save her, but she also saves them. While I enjoyed reading about her, it is her friend, Lu Junyi, who stayed behind that became my favourite. 


Lu Junyi works directly for the powerful people of the corrupt empire, and despite the sexist nature of their society, she is a respected scientist, working on a devastating weapon. While Lin Chong struggles with her loyalties now that she is outside of society, Lu Junyi has to navigate her own way from within the system. She must come to terms with the damage she can cause with her position. At times naive, other times clever, Lu Junyi struggles with morality, loyalty, nationalism, and friendship. Both women are forced to confront everything they believe.


Martial arts play a key component in the novel and I hope this becomes a movie so I can watch the brilliant fight scenes. Not only are the women capable warriors, some of them have access to special artifacts which grant them superpowers. Only these powers don’t come cheap–something I appreciate. Too often heroic characters are mighty beyond belief, and while that can be fun on occasion, it’s better when those powers are earned.

The Water Outlaws is a fun, exciting, martial arts epic. The characters are engaging (although too many of them have names that start with “L”), and their story is compelling. I enjoyed reading this book and would happily read another by this author.


Available from Amazon and Bookshop.

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