The Water Outlaws by S. L. Huang tells the story of a group of outcasts who have found common ground in wanting to rid the empire of its corruption and restore it to its former glory. It’s an inspiring and brutal tale of heroes, anti-heroes, and villains all fighting for their version of justice. Huang adds a dash of magic and incredibly high stakes to tell a compelling story that has easily become one of my favorite books of 2023.
One act of defiance against an Imperial Marshall earns the respected arms instructor, Lin Chong, in a cell with a tattoo on her cheek and a death sentence over her head. Her friend and wealthy socialite, Lu Junyi, interferes and is able to have Lin Chong’s sentence reduced to forced labor in a work camp. However, Lin Chong doesn’t make it to the camp. Instead, she finds herself in the fierce company of The Bandits of Liangshan. The bandits take in everyone looking for a second chance, but not all members are as noble as the former Imperial instructor. With few options and a vendetta against the man who ruined her life, Lin Chong will attempt to find her place among a group of thieves, murderers, and criminals to fight against the flood of an unjust and corrupt empire.
Huang does an excellent job showcasing the horrors of powerful men and how the world bends to their whims. The story centers around a group of vigilante outlaws, so Huang quickly sets the stage to demonstrate the severe power imbalance between them and the rich men of the court. Several frightening and uncomfortable situations play out throughout the book, and I was horrified by the scenarios that Lin Chong and Lu Junyi are forced into. The characters navigate difficult situations, and oftentimes every choice leads to harm for either themselves or others. My indecisive, perfectionist brain was on fire as I thought about the choices I would make in their shoes, and I applaud Huang for capturing the difficulty and consequences of these situations.
These situations are made even better by the characters and their unaligned moral standards. It’s interesting to see the characters’ values fluctuate throughout the book, which characters change, and why they do. While there are many colorful characters with varied ideals, there are three who have the most page time and share their inner turmoil. Lin Chong does not rock the boat and has lived her life working hard and never questioned the authority surrounding her as an Imperial arms instructor. One of Lin Chong’s students, Lu Junyi, is a wealthy but knowledgeable woman who does not hide her frustration or shy away from sharing her ideas to better the empire. Then there is our sunshine himbo Lu Da, whose impulsiveness may have landed her in some tight spots but is someone who has a heart of gold and a strong sense of justice. Each woman will be tested over and over again, while the reader sits and watches the consequences of their actions play out.
The Water Outlaws is a strong standalone story. It has great pacing and multiple POVs that are interesting and contribute to the story meaningfully. The inner workings of the magic system remain vague, but the powers and incredible feats support the story well and serve as tools for both sides to manipulate. There is only one part that was unsatisfactory to me, and it was a fade-to-black ending given to one of the characters. Their story felt unfinished, especially when every other story stream wraps up nicely and flows home to a larger potential plot to carry on. As one of our more tortured and conflicted characters, maybe we are meant to sit in uncomfortable silence and think, “What now?” without any real answers as to what their future holds. I am happy to endure an ending filled with unknowns, but it does feel out of place given that every other character has a definitive end.
I was swept away by The Water Outlaws’ shifting tides of loyalty and the complicated web of tributaries that marks each character’s unique path. This book is definitely being shelved as one of my favorite reads this year, and I encourage you to pick it up and respond to the bandits’ rallying cry.
Rating: The Water Outlaws – 9.0/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.