Lin Chong has always done what was expected. As a child, she studied hard, trained harder to take the Examination, and made her way from a quiet city street to Arms Instructor of the Emperor’s own soldiers. Using sword and spear, crossbow and body, she serves her Emperor and China, one of the very few women in such a position, and she serves well. In a world of politics, Lin Chong keeps her head down and her mouth shut. Women come and go; maids and servants with tears in their eyes and bruises on their skin, but that’s none of her business … until her friend, Lu Junyi, is called for a private meeting with Gao Qiu.
This leads to Lin Chong being accused of a crime she didn’t commit, thrown into the dungeon, and scheduled for execution. Lu Junyi, a socialite, known for her collections of poets, scholars, people of conversation, and wit, knows what Lin Chong has done for her and arranges for lesser charges and a more merciful punishment. Instead of death, Lin Chong’s face is now branded with the mark of a criminal and she is dragged off to serve in a penal colony on the borders of the Empire. But Gao Qiu is not the kind of man to forgive an insult, and tasks the guards to kill her along the way.
If it weren’t for Lu Da, the Flower Monk, sent by Lu Junyi to follow and protect Lin Chong, he might have succeeded. Instead, Lu Da whisks Lin Chong deep into the swamps and introduces her to the bandits of Liangshan. Liangshan is a world of women bandits, where what you did before you arrived isn’t important; it’s what you do when you’re here. These women, cast off, cast out, some guilty of the crimes they’re accused of, some not, rob rich merchants and live for adventure. They are haojie, heroes, who dream of righting wrongs and saving lives while living free and happy.
Lin Chong has a choice to make. Live in the past, mourn for the life taken from her … or live the life she has today.
The Water Outlaws is a retelling of Water Margin (also called Outlaws of the Marsh), which is about a group of bandits who rebelled against the government. It’s similar to Robin Hood, in a way, with a dramatic and charismatic leader and their chosen family rising up to strike at cruel and corrupt nobles for the protection of the peasants. However, the noble heroes of Liangshan … haven’t always been heroes. They are cooks who worked in black inns, where the meat on the menu didn’t come from anything with four legs; women who left trails of blood behind them; and thieves, liars, and murderers. They are alongside poets who wrote the wrong words; philosophers who dreamed of a world without corruption; women who didn’t want to sleep with men in power; or women like Lin Chong, who stood up against abuse and cruelty, but were unable to save themselves.
Lin Chong has always seen herself as doing the right thing, of merely following orders … just as the soldiers who slaughtered a town were only following orders. She saw herself as a normal person, innocent of doing anything wrong, much as every other person who looked away when harm was being done. Here, Lin Chong is being given a choice to serve alongside sisters, but even then, she holds back. Keeps herself apart, sees herself as different from these women. Because, even here, there are petty struggles as the woman in charge bullies others, holds court like a member of the Emperor’s court, demands others bow before her and obey without question.
Lin Chong never asked to be a hero, never asked to be special, never sought to be more than she was. Until she sees someone else being put in the same position, another woman led step by step, failure by failure to Liangshan.
None of [her choices] had seemed very much like choices at all, when she made of each of them, each knocking her toward this eventual end, when she had to choose one more time, with exhaustion and anger rubbing her to rawness far past endurance […].
She chose one more time.
She chose, this time, not to give in to one more person who only wished her ill, who was corrupting this life where she might find a place, a person who was a clear and current danger to all those she oversaw, whose presence only tore down and poisoned and whose absence would mean a better world.
Lin Chong chose.
This is a story about pride, ego, and sacrifice. It’s Lu Junyi serving in the palace, doing what she’s told by a man she fears, believing not just because she wants to — wants to believe good things will happen, just and fair and moral — but because to peek over the edge of her rose-tinted glasses may show her fields of red blood, destruction, and despair that she is helping create. It’s about Wu Yong, whose plans are flawless, but whose desire for excitement and the need to win cloud her judgement. It’s Lu Da and her giant heart, and Song Jiang, the poet, who wants a better world. It’s Chao Gai and the village of Dongxi; and The Chaos Demon and her husband, an old married couple who are imprisoned by Cai Jing for seditious thoughts and now forced to work under threats of torture and death on a super weapon that could destroy the world. It’s every choice that was made and all those that weren’t. It’s a story about people choosing to become heroes.
Obviously, I love this book. (I mean, I gave it five stars.) There are a lot of characters introduced, a lot of stories interwoven, and the pace goes from the pastoral quiet before the storm to the violent destruction of armies. There is endless world building, interwoven plots, and exquisite writing. It’s mythic and lyrical, and the emotional beats for me were spot on. I’m so glad I was able to read this book, and hope you take this chance to read it, yourself. Expect me to rave about this book again in December with my year wrap-up and favorites list.