Sunday Soupçons #22

Posted 6th August 2023 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews, Spec-Fic Reviews, Sunday Soupçons / 2 Comments

soupçon/ˈsuːpsɒn,ˈsuːpsɒ̃/ noun
1. a very small quantity of something; a slight trace, as of a particular taste or flavor

Sunday Soupçons is where I scribble mini-reviews for books I don’t have the brainspace/eloquence/smarts to write about in depth – or if I just don’t have anything interesting to say beyond I LIKED IT AND YOU SHOULD READ IT TOO!

Two arcs and one of my faves of the year!

The Water Outlaws by S.L. Huang
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Chinese-coded cast and setting, major sapphic POV character, minor nonbinary characters
Published on: 22nd August 2023

Inspired by a classic of martial arts literature, S. L. Huang's The Water Outlaws are bandits of devastating ruthlessness, unseemly femininity, dangerous philosophies, and ungovernable gender who are ready to make history—or tear it apart.

In the jianghu, you break the law to make it your own.

Lin Chong is an expert arms instructor, training the Emperor's soldiers in sword and truncheon, battle axe and spear, lance and crossbow. Unlike bolder friends who flirt with challenging the unequal hierarchies and values of Imperial society, she believes in keeping her head down and doing her job.

Until a powerful man with a vendetta rips that carefully-built life away.

Disgraced, tattooed as a criminal, and on the run from an Imperial Marshall who will stop at nothing to see her dead, Lin Chong is recruited by the Bandits of Liangshan. Mountain outlaws on the margins of society, the Liangshan Bandits proclaim a belief in justice—for women, for the downtrodden, for progressive thinkers a corrupt Empire would imprison or destroy. They’re also murderers, thieves, smugglers, and cutthroats.
Apart, they love like demons and fight like tigers. Together, they could bring down an empire.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I felt very underwhelmed by Water Outlaws, but I strongly suspect it’s because I was in a bad headspace while I read it. Looked at objectively, Water Outlaws is a very good book, maybe even a great one, with lots of strong threads woven together into an impressive tapestry. The arcs of the various main and major characters are meaty, complex, and immensely satisfying, and Huang places her cast in a complicated world where concepts like right and wrong, justice and vengeance, and even good and evil are murky, all but impossible to define, and sometimes heartbreakingly fluid. In that it’s painfully realistic.

But there’s definitely an element of wish fulfilment and tongue-in-cheek fun winding through the book too, with marvellousIy over-the-top, magical martial arts allowing for anime-esque battles with incredible visuals. And if many writers struggle to write great battle scenes, I can assure you that Huang is not one of them; both the light-hearted examples of supernatural mastery and the dark, desperate fights for freedom are, frankly, spectacular.

This is far from a bloodless book; many of the themes and topics it deals with are ugly and painful, and Huang doesn’t gloss over the viciousness and death that are an inevitable part of fighting for your right to exist. The successes of the bandits mean death for their enemies – there’s no getting around that – and that isn’t pretty. But it shouldn’t be.

(I do wish there’d been some acknowledgement that the Empire’s soldiers are really just cogs in the machine; that it’s a tragedy, and an evil, that they have to die because the people commanding them are rotten, rather than because of any crimes, or even choices, of their own. Instead they were turned into a faceless horde, which was kind of surprising given how much the rest of the book critiques the system they’re all trapped in.)

I was under the impression that Water Outlaws was going to be massively queer and feature a whole lot of gender fuckery, and that’s not really the case? We have several very minor nonbinary characters, and a major POV character is sapphic, but that’s it. And that’s fine, but I just wanted to give a head’s up to anyone else who had the same wrong idea about what they’re in for here. (Although I guess you could argue that pretty much the entire cast is made up of unfeminine women? That’s not an argument I would buy, though.)

Regardless, I thing Water Outlaws succeeds at being exactly what it wants to be – an adventure story that doesn’t try to pretend the world is a simple place; entertaining as hell while leaving you with plenty to think about; and, somehow, a book that manages to feel straightforward despite its crunchy complexity. If it wasn’t quite to my taste, that doesn’t change my enthusiastic recommendation. Definitely receives the Sia stamp of approval!

Content warning for View Spoiler »

The Thick and the Lean by Chana Porter
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Speculative Fiction
Representation: Bi/pansexual MC, Indigenous MC, secondary asexual character, minor disabled Indigenous character

In Lambda Award finalist Chana Porter’s highly anticipated new novel, an aspiring chef, a cyberthief, and a kitchen maid each break free of a society that wants to constrain them.

In the quaint religious town of Seagate, abstaining from food brings one closer to God.
But Beatrice Bolano is hungry. She craves the forbidden: butter, flambé, marzipan. As Seagate takes increasingly extreme measures to regulate every calorie its citizens consume, Beatrice must make a choice: give up her secret passion for cooking or leave the only community she has known.

Elsewhere, Reiko Rimando has left her modest roots for a college tech scholarship in the big city. A flawless student, she is set up for success...until her school pulls her funding, leaving her to face either a mountain of debt or a humiliating return home. But Reiko is done being at the mercy of the system. She forges a third path—outside of the law.

With the guidance of a mysterious cookbook written by a kitchen maid centuries ago, Beatrice and Reiko each grasp for a life of freedom—something more easily imagined than achieved in a world dominated by catastrophic corporate greed.

A startling fable of the entwined perils of capitalism, body politics, and the stigmas women face for appetites of every kind, Chana Porter’s profound new novel explores the reclamation of pleasure as a revolutionary act.

The Thick and the Lean is an almost unbearably delicious book; this was my first experience with Porter’s prose, and suffice to say it made me swoon.

But I didn’t initially know this was SFF! I thought it was going to be set in our world! But nope: Beatrice and Reiko live in a world with two moons, zeppelins, and a three-layered city (if I understood that part correctly), where the dominant religion reveres the Flesh Martyr for defeating an evil witch back in the beforetimes.



The situation is set up in a way reminiscent of the US; the Indigenous people are marginalised, trapped in poverty, and fetishised by many so-called ‘allies’. The dominant group are white with a creepy-ass religion that considers food and eating as taboo as many religions in our world consider promiscuity and casual sex – whereas in Beatrice and Reiko’s world, sex is casual by default. We grasp all of this very quickly, because the book opens with Beatrice’s puberty as she grows up in an Intensely Religious Group in…a place that feels too big to be described as a commune, but is basically that. And it seems pretty utopic! It’s just that eating is bad, but that’s not really a big deal, because Beatrice and her family and friends take pills that massively dampen the appetite, so eating very plain food that brings no pleasure isn’t a hardship.

But Beatrice develops a secret fascination with, and love for, cooking and food that’s actually delicious. Which is a problem.

Reiko, on the other hand, is a tech genius who gets a scholarship to a top-tier uni, and runs face-first into classism, the struggles of trying to keep up with the super-rich when you’re not, and eventually being pressured to make her art about her people’s culture instead of, you know, the art she wants to make (and rocks at).

This all sounds very dark and grim, but it didn’t feel like that. The struggles Beatrice and Reiko face are rage-inducing, but the book is weirdly…hmm. Not optimistic, really. But it’s beautiful, and so gorgeously sensual, and Beatrice and Reiko are such awesome characters whose stories I loved following! (Even if Reiko’s took turns I was definitely not expecting!) I was fascinated by the worldbuilding – including the secret book that both Beatrice and Reiko have read – and honestly, I love stories where food is a big deal, especially when it’s described so lovingly.

I can’t do it any justice, but The Thick and the Lean is one of my favourites of the year so far!

A Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina Rather
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Sapphic MC, F/F, minor achillean character, glimpse of a trans/nonbinary character
Published on: 31st October 2023

In 17th-century London, unnatural babies are being born: some with eyes made for the dark, others with webbed fingers and toes better suited to the sea.

Sarah Davis is intimately familiar with such strangeness—she herself was born marked by uncanniness. Having hidden her nature all her life and fled to London under suspicious circumstances, Sarah starts over as a midwife’s apprentice, hoping to carve out for herself an independent life. As a member of the illegal Worshipful Company of Midwives, Sarah learns to reach across the thinning boundary between her world and another, drawing on its power to heal and protect the women she serves.

When the wealthy Lady Wren hires her to see her through her pregnancy, Sarah quickly becomes a favorite of her husband, the famous architect Lord Christopher Wren, whose interest in the uncanny borders on obsession. Sarah soon finds herself caught in a web of magic and intrigue created by those who would use the magic of the Other World to gain power for themselves, and whose pursuits threaten to unmake the earth itself.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I really enjoyed this! I was initially a bit disappointed to discover it was only a novella, but A Season of Monstrous Conceptions needed to be; it’s exactly the right length to make the story punch as hard as it possibly can. A short story form would have suffocated it, and forcing it to be a novel would have stretched and padded it beyond repair.

This read more like historical fantasy than horror to me – I never felt disgusted or horrified by the monster-babies, for example, but they and the issues around them might hit harder with readers who have children of their own. And I should probably admit that I didn’t really understand, or buy into, the explanation for why these babies are becoming Other in-utero.

But it’s still a great little book. I really liked the main character, Sarah; I loved seeing her discover London’s underground queer community! There’s a pretty interesting (and from what I understand, historically accurate) enmity between midwives and Men Of Science, which here is not just about medical trade secrets but views on the Other Place and the powers that can come from it. And whether those powers should be used, and if so what for. I wish this had been a little less women vs men – that kind of ‘battle of the sexes’ is something I’m bored of, but it was kind of unavoidable seeing as Rather clearly wanted to stay true to the historical reality, which means no well-regarded women scientists about, alas.

And there’s something very compelling about the Worshipful Company of Midwives; I liked that they weren’t sweet and lovely, but quite unlikable, and I could understand why they kept their secrets close and hoarded their knowledge, why they were so passionately invested in the Other Place. They want power in a society that doesn’t grant them any; I would too.

I wish I’d actually felt a sense of otherness re the Other Place; it never felt really alien to me. But this is still a quick, great read, one that surprised me a number of times (both happy surprises and not), and I very much recommend it for anyone looking for a slightly darker queer historical fantasy!

Do any of these appeal to you? Let me know!

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2 responses to “Sunday Soupçons #22

  1. I just finished saying, “I don’t do food books,” and then read this post. lol I think I’m going to have to try The Thick and the Lean, tho.

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