Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Review: The Water Outlaws by S. L. Huang

A stunning reimagining of a Chinese Classic work of literature with modern worldbuilding, queer sensibilities and a feminist approach that retains the power and strength of the original text.

As a reviewer, I heavily debated with myself how to introduce this review and bring you into the world of S. L. Huang’s The Water Outlaws. With a work like this, there are a lot of handles to grasp, but which is the right handle to grasp onto to start the explanation, the discussion, the importance of this work. Finally, I have decided to go with a historical approach, because, in the end, as good as this novel is as a standalone work, it is a work that is not only in dialogue with a classic piece of literature, it goes much further.

So let’s start with a little bit of background. In Classic Chinese literature, there are a number of canonical novels, core books that are the backbone of a strand of Chinese history, culture and society. These are the books that, once upon a time, everyone who was literate could quote from, read, enjoyed, and shared. These were foundational texts in a way that, say, the Iliad and the Odyssey were for Classic Greece and Rome. There is, as there is with all canons, some debate over the lineup, but four novels are always on the list.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms:  Out of all of these, this is the one you, who may not know much about Chinese literature, may have most likely heard of. This is the story of a period between two major Chinese Dynasties, the Han and the Jin, a period of turbulence, anarchy, strife and conflict. Pieces of this story have arrived in the west in the form of movies, and even videogames. 

Journey to the West: This is the second most likely you have heard of, especially for fans of Wuxia films and the like, for it has been adapted and reimagined numerous times on screen. Even the very Western flavored movie “Forbidden Kingdom” really is a retelling of this story. The Monkey King goes on the titular journey to India, and gets into numerous adventures with his companions along the way.

Dream of the Red Chamber: Again, there have been movie versions of this work, and it, too, has had literary adaptations and provided inspiration. Aliette de Bodard’s “On a Red Station, Drifting” borrows from this powerful novel of love and family. 

And finally we come to the fourth of the set, The Water Margin. The Water Margin is set in the Song Dynasty, the last native Chinese Dynasty before the invasion of the Mongols. The Water Margin is a story that in its 50000 foot level will be familiar to Western readers. A group of diversely outlaws in an inaccessible area, fighting against corrupt officials who are oppressing the people? Yes, in the most broad of senses, The Water Margin is the Chinese parallel to the story of Robin Hood. It’s bigger scale, (108 outlaws in all, much larger than Robin’s band), larger stakes--fighting against full imperial armies, and, sadly, ends in a tragedy, the heroism of the outlaws ending not quite in a happily ever after.

And it is The Water Margin that is the story that S. L. Huang retells in The Water Outlaws.

S. L. Huang puts us in a slightly different China right from the get go by giving it a more feminist approach, starting with genderflipping the main character, Lin Chong. In Huang’s slightly alternate China, women have a significantly better role and place in society, but not so much that sexism and oppression of women are still not huge obstacles. But as a guard captain, Lin Chong is certainly in a position she would have not had in our own history. In this way, The Water Outlaws invites for me, comparisons to Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, which has a genderflipped protagonist, but she is a character who hides her gender. And her story is at the end of the Yuan dynasty, a century or more after the events of The Water Margin. But the queer, feminist lens of Chinese history and the perspective that it brings is strong in both works.

Lin’s path from Guard Captain to Outlaw is a shockingly fast one, but in an autocracy where enormous power is held by a few men, it is rather understandable. There is a deep injustice to Lin’s arrest and sentencing, and it helps put us on the footing right away that the Outlaws in general all started as unjust victims of a corrupt state apparatus, and are fighting against that injustice to themselves and the general citizenry.¹

Too, Lu Junyi is another genderflipped character from The Water Margin. Here, instead of being an archer beyond compare, Lu Junyi is a warrior and a scholar of a different sort, wielding knowledge and the spread of it as her weapons. This makes her very different than the almost monstrous antecedent from the original novel, but it also makes her very much a unique creation and invention of the author’s. Her story, while it starts with scenes with Lin, is off on her own, away from the Marsh, providing perspective particularly on the doings of the pair of antagonists. She provides a good contrast with the much more martial Lin.

In the case of those main pair of antagonists, Minister Gao Qiu, and Cai Jing,  Huang sticks closer to the mark, depicting both closer to the mark from the novel. Gao is ultimately who sets Lin on the path of being an outlaw and joining them in the marsh. Cai is a more martial sort, with plans and plots of his own. They are rivals in the imperial court of the Emperor, however, and one might even see the story from the perspective of these two rivals in the Song court, and how their rivalry plays out in a number of ways, including the disgrace and outlaw of Lin, Cai’s plots for power, and how the looming threat of Northern adversaries are a danger to the Court and the Empire. I do think that there could have been another “book” here, set entirely within the Imperial Court, with the machinations and intricacies laid out. But that is not the story Huang wants to tell, and I think the story she does tell is the more salable and appealing one for most audiences. The conflict between outlaws and empire is what Huang wants to do, and do it in style.

So far, you might think that this novel is as lightly fantastical as the aforementioned Parker-Chan novel. Is this even a fantasy book at all?  However, this is a Huang book, and this means we get a lot of action beats, and we also get an explicitly supernatural element as well. The introduction of “God’s teeth”, ancient artifacts that bond with a user and grant them supernatural powers, is the most explicitly fantastical part of the story. In the course of the plot, an ambitious plan to get more God’s Teeth and use them as weapons is a strong subplot that wraps up Lu Jinyi, and keeps up the fantastic elements of the novel. There is an interesting tension with the God’s Teeth, while they are powerful, they are seen by many as relics of the past, a bygone age gone by in more modern, enlightened times. And God’s teeth, while powerful, are not the be all and end all, as a sparring match with Lin proves ably. Still, having supernatural-esque martial arts and powers reminds me of Huang’s original novels, Zero Sum Game and its sequels.  

The writing of the action beats does, too. Those aforementioned novels, with Cas having greater than human physical abilities because of Math, showed me early that Huang had a talent for writing action beats. That talent is on full display here in a very different context and setting. However different near future LA and Song China are in terms of weapons, style and scene, when it comes to actual physical conflict, Huang once again delivers the goods with crisply executed action sequences that also provide characterization  in the bargain. Whether it is sparring by the bandits in the Marsh, or desperate fight against the Imperial forces seeking to overwhelm them, the action beats are top notch. 

I haven’t talked much about the panoply of secondary characters of the actual band of Outlaws that make up the outlaws of Liangshan Marsh. They do not quite hold up as perfectly well as Lin and Lu, but those are towering characters, almost characters of destiny. There is a gradation of characters in the novel. Below Lin and Lu are characters like Wu Yong, the Tactician, and Jiang Jing, a mathematician. Lu Da, as possessor of a God’s tooth of her own, is a ferocious fighter and combatant of the first level. All of these are genderflipped from the original novel. More lesser characters are included, including some men who retain their gender from the original work. This means in effect that the Bandits are overwhelmingly but not entirely genderflipped into women. But, as given with Lin’s former guard captain status, it means that they are capable--and yes, underestimated by the Empire in the same turn. 

I should also note that the novel can be extremely violent and bloody. There are also, again in dialogue with the original novel, references and allusions to things like cannibalism as well. This is one of those novels where anyone can die, and there are some sudden and shocking ends for some of the characters in the novel. Being a rebel against the Imperial government, or defying it in any way, is not an easy business. Huang pulls no punches here with her characters. But, again, that is keeping with The Water Margin itself.

The novel, however chonky and thick it is, does not recapitulate the entirety of The Water Margin in its story, giving the story a heroic ending (although definitely not without costs to the bandits of the Marsh as mentioned above) but supplying a satisfactory conclusion all the same. The question you might have at this point is--do you need to read the Water Margin in order to truly appreciate this novel?  

I think no. Certainly having read The Water Margin gave me a strong appreciation for what Huang does here. The allusions and parallels and borrowings, to say nothing of the dialogue with the original novel, is a rich strand that really enriched my reading experience, I will admit. But divorced from that, this is a historical fantasy that provides its readers with everything one needs to enjoy it. The worldbuilding is enhanced by the original novel, it doesn’t depend on it for readers to get what is going on. And really, the aforementioned very general “Robin Hood band in medieval China” is really all you need to know in order to get to know the characters and what is going on. The differences and additions that Huang brings (such as the Teeth) and major omissions from the novel, such as the Spirits, means that the novel does stand on its own.

The Water Outlaws is an entirely successful fusion of Chinese Classic literature with modern sensibilities, writing and point of view. In The Water Outlaws, S. L. Huang takes one of the pillars of Chinese literature and reinvents it as a queer, feminist retelling of an important and nation-defining story. With strong characterization, immersive worldbuilding, strong resonances with the original text, and vivid action scenes, The Water Outlaws encapsulates all the power and strength in Huang’s writing. This is a book that both works for readers unfamiliar with the original work, and those who find it one of their heart texts. 


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for strong writing, especially action beats and bringing the reader into medieval China.

+1 for an entirety successful reimagining of a Chinese Classic that is diverse, queer and unapologetically feminist.

Penalties: -1  Some of the secondary characters do not shine as much as the main antagonists and protagonists.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference: Huang, S. L., The Water Outlaws, [Tor, 2023]


POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

¹The ELO song “The Greenwood”, about Robin Hood, comes to mind about the bandits and how they came to be:

The city boys, and the country boys, they come from miles around,

To defy their king and country, save the poor folks from the hand,

Of the thieving dukes and abbots, and the gentry of the land.”

Although it must be said again, the Chinese version of this is that the Bandits are absolutely  loyal to the Emperor...but not to the corrupt officials that are ruining his rule.