Inspired in equal parts by action-packed wuxia films (a Chinese genre focused on martial artists) and the classic Chinese novel Water Margin, S.L. Huang’s The Water Outlaws follows a group of heroes struggling to build a place for themselves in an alternative imperial China. Lin Chong, a former arms master who lost her position thanks to a petty and vengeful member of the royal court, is nearly killed en route to a prison camp. She joins forces with a group of outlaws known as the Liangshan Bandits, who have created a refuge for those who are on the wrong side of the law—and the wrong side of gender and power hierarchies. Lin Chong begins to redefine her life alongside poets, progressive thinkers and others rejected by the empire. But their refuge isn’t guaranteed to last forever, and Lin Chong and her new companions must fight in order to preserve their community.
With The Water Outlaws, Huang explores the space between what is good and what is lawful. Despite often claiming to work for the good of the emperor and the empire, Lin Chong and her compatriots do not always (or even usually) stay within the confines of the law. They lie, cheat and even kill to maintain the peace that they have carved out for themselves within a society they see as corrupt. Their cause is just, Lin Chong reminds herself, even if their methods are not always lawful.
The Water Outlaws is above all else a story of femme and queer resistance. In Liangshan, Huang creates an accepting alternative society that celebrates marginalized gender identities, a mirror of the communities that exist in our own world to protect the most vulnerable. That isn’t to say that The Water Outlaws is a gentle story: Its pages are filled with violence against the Liangshan Bandits and also against women like the noble Lu Junyi, one of Lin Chong’s former students who is trying to work within the confines of the empire to enact change. But amid the darkness its characters face, The Water Outlaws captures the wonder and fun of wuxia, complete with epic fight scenes, death-defying feats of martial arts and the occasional bit of actual magic. Huang champions the underdogs, even in the face of the impossible.