S. L. Huang’s 2023 The Water Outlaws is a fantasy reimagining of the classic Chinese novel, The Water Margin.
Lin Chong is a Master Arms Instructor for the Guard. One of very few women to be deemed sufficiently talented that she could teach despite her lamentable choice of gender, she has served the (Northern) Song Dynasty loyally.
She will be repaid very badly for her service.
Lin Chong’s superior, Grand Marshal Gao Qiu, has many flaws and one single virtue: he has the ear of the emperor and thus is unassailable. Therefore, when during a discussion of paper currency, he demands sex from Lin Chong he cannot imagine that she would resist. When she successfully fends off his attempted assault, Gao Qiu has Lin Chong arrested.
No sensible person believes Lin Chong guilty. Gao Qui’s influence is such that innocence will not affect verdict. Lin Chong’s wealthy scholar friend Lu Junyi spends bribe money freely. All she can accomplish is to have the penalty changed to imprisonment from execution. and to provide Lin Chong with bodyguard Lu Da for the journey to prison.
Vexed that Lin Chong survived, Gao Qui bribes the prison escort to murder Lin Chong before she reaches the prison. This plan does not take boisterous Lu Da into account. Lin Chong survives. She and Lu Da escape into the marsh, where they are taken in by the soon-to-be notorious Liangshan bandits.
Outsiders might say the Liangshan bandits are a small army of dangerous, larcenous and often-homicidal women. Liangshan bandit leader Chao Gai sees her gang as a refuge, offering women spurned by society a place where their talents can be put to productive use. Lin Chong and Lu Da accept the offer of refuge, repaying the favour with their prodigious martial arts skills.
The bandits’ raids provide Chancellor Cai Jing with challenge and opportunity. Convinced that the Empire faces an existential threat from outside, an increasingly bold and successful bandit army is an intolerable distraction. However, the chancellor is adept at turning setbacks to personal advantage. He turns his attention to Lu Junyi, suspected of aiding Lin Chong’s escape. Lu is blackmailed into serving Cai Jing.
Cai Jin has been gathering occult resources; he has the assistance of Lu Junyi, He plans to give the Song Dynasty weapons of mass destruction that can scour the marshes clean of all life. This will have added result of transforming cowardly, vindictive Gao Qui into a god.
Obligatory disclaimer: the Song weren’t complete numpties. Both the Northern Song and Southern Song had many abilities that other states at this time could not match. They had their flaws, yes, but these were the same flaws that hobbled the other states.
Readers don’t really need to know anything about Chinese history or The Water Margin to enjoy this novel, Prior knowledge of the historical setting may make the experience of reading this book a bit more nuanced, but it’s not necessary. The author is very good at inclueing.
Well … there’s perhaps one historical fact that it would be good to keep in mind. Cai Jing isn’t paranoid when he worries about external threats i.e. invading nomadic tribes. The historical Northern Song were crushed by the Jin Dynasty1. Cai Jing does not have much time to save his dynasty; the events that inspired the original Water Margin transpired in 1121, while the fall of the Northern Song occurred in 1127.
Indeed, people doing terrible things in the belief that they are serving justice is a running theme in the story. Gai Qin is an irredeemable cad, but he’s the exception. Just as underhanded Cai Jing wants to save China, the often-homicidal bandits are led by women determined to help the victims of a corrupt, unjust state2. Can good ends come from bad means? The characters do their best to find out.
At nearly 500 pages in paper (722 in ebook), The Water Outlaws is longer than I’d like, given stuff and things and hence limited attention span. However, Huang’s prose, the tapestry of diverse, engaging characters, their thrilling adventures, and the escalating stakes were sufficiently enthralling that I just couldn’t stop reading, even though I had other things to do. I finished this in one long read. If you were to give this book a try, you may also find yourself enthralled.
The Water Outlaws is available (for pre-order) here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books) (For some reason, I only found it on the “cl” page, but I am 80 percent sure that that is an Anglophone edition), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo).
1: In brief: the Song and the Jin allied to crush the Liao. To facilitate invading Liao territory, the Song chopped down the forest that was the primary impediment in the path of Jin troops. The same forest was a defense against the Jin invading Song Dynasty China. The Jin, having noticed the Northern Song army was spectacularly fuck-awful, saw an opportunity and took it.
2: Is it weird that the Robin Hood stories about 12th century righteous bandits and the Water Margin stories about 12th century righteous bandits appear at the same time a continent apart? Or are there enough gangs of righteous bandits that two gangs of them will eventually show up at the same time?