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The Water Outlaws
by S. L. Huang

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 10, 2023

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S. L. Huang's latest book is based on Shui Hu Zhuan (Water Margin) by Shi Nai'an, considered to be one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature. There has been debate as to when it was written, even disputes as to the original author, but according to Wikipedia several of the characters are historical, although Huang has gender-swapped many from men to women, or in some cases to transgender, or gender-fluid individuals. It is set in the 12th Century during the Northern Song dynasty, the two major locations being the Imperial capital city of Bianliang (modern day Kaifeng, in Henan Province), and Mount Liang/Liangshan Marsh, about 150 miles northeast of the capital in neighboring Shangdong Province. The Marsh is the reason for "Water" in the title of both the classic and modern tellings. The classic story also has alternate titles, which may be individual chapter headings, and there have been multiple media adaptaions, listed on this page.

I won't go into too much detail about specific events, other than the impetus that puts the plot in motion, but also warn that some scenes are very violent and brutal. Not so much to place this within the grimdark sub-genre, just graphic depictions of battles and fights between individuals. Without doing a lot of research it is hard to say how accurate any version is to historical events, but if they were as depicted in this book, all of the salient points are still relevant to the world today. There is within the group of water outlaws those who were outlaws in general in previous times, but most came to the group due to being wronged by the system. Abused wives, disgraced politicians, discharged military personnel, evicted farmers, etc. One of the main characters is Lin Chong, Master Arms Instructor of the Imperial Guard. I think she is in her late 50s or early 60s (I visualized Michelle Yeoh), and had been training officers and other soldiers for close to forty years, highly respected by many in the military chain of command. What led to her fall from grace also involved her good friend Lu Junyi, a wealthy, intellectual socialite and social activist who owns her own printing press. She is much younger than Chong, at least by a generation. Junyi occasionally trains with Chong, and after one session mentions to her that she has a meeting with Grand Marshal Gao Qui, Chong's immediate superior. Chong knows of Gao Qui's reputation of taking advantage of young women, so persuades Junyi to let her accompany her to the meeting. That is probably what infuriated Gao Qui. Instead of getting the younger, prettier woman alone, he dismisses her and attacks Lin Chong.

No weapons were allowed into the meeting room, but when Chong rebuffs the marshal's advances, he calls his guard to bring Chong the sword she relinquished outside. He then accuses her of attempted assassination and has her arrested. Instead of execution, she pleads guilty to a lesser charge, and is sentenced to prison, after severe lashings and being tattooed on the left side of her face. Lu Junyi is able to bribe several of the guards who would be taking Chong to prison, asking for leniency in their treatment of her, but also enlists another of Chong's students to follow them and protect her. Lu Da is a former monk of the Fa, prone to getting into fights, and over-indulging in food, drink, and sex. She possesses an item that is a definite fantasy element, but later leads to experiments that veer toward a science fiction scenario. The guards had been ordered to kill Lin Chong instead of delivering her to the prison, but Lu Da is able to kill one of them and send the other hobbling back to the capital. Lu Da was familiar with the water outlaws, perhaps was already a member, so takes Lin Chong to Liangshan Marsh, where she gets rudimentary medical attention, then when they get to the main camp on Mount Liang, the outlaws' "Divine Physician" An Daoquant is able to speed her to a full recovery. Chong eventually becomes their new drill instructor.

The narrative then alternates between the outlaws preparing for encounters with the Imperial Army, with Lu Junyi being recruited to help with secret experiments that delve into the fundamental forces of nature. The artifact Lu Da has is called a god's tooth. It is either metal or stone, or a combination, which when activated properly gives the user inordinate strength. The experiments commissioned by Cai Jing, Chancellor of the Secretariat, would fuse a god's tooth with scholar's stone, to form an new, more powerful weapon, a god's fang. In a sense, those experiments could be considered an early Chinese Manhattan Project. The experiments were successful, or not, depending on how you judge success. The elements that resonate today, and are also similar to medieval Europe, include heavy taxation, indentured servitude, and corruption at all levels of society, government, military, the civilian justice system, etc. If not all, the majority of the outlaws claim to be loyal to the Empire, and specifically to the Emperor (may he live forever!). Another similarity to Europe is the concept of the divine right of kings/emperors. What they are fighting against is the corruption of everything below the Emperor, but it never seemed to cross their mind that the Emperor might be corrupt himself, if he allowed all the corruption below him.

Water Margin began with the release of the "108 Heroes" from their imprisonment. That number is not achieved until later in the new book. When Lin Chong joined the water outlaws they numbered only about forty. After their encounter with, and defeat of, more than twenty thousand Imperial troops, others from the surrounding area joined the cause. The final chapter sees them taking down county magistrates, installing a replacement from their own ranks, or in some cases from those they freed from jails. The Emperor has not moved against them again, but might in the future. It is known many of those corrupt magistrates were put in those positions to get them away from the capital, so the Emperor may be grateful for them to be completly eliminated. At least for now. I have no idea if there will be a sequel, but it is possible, and if so I will read it. The strengths of this novel is strong character development, intricate plotting, and exciting (but again, sometimes gruesome) action. Multiple instances of magical abilities does not alter the realistic grounding in human behavior. Loyalty, courage, and a burning desire for justice make the Water Outlaws a powerful force, and this a powerful book. Highly recommended.


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S. L. Huang

August 22, 2023

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