This summer I read Jeannie Lin’s beautiful “Lotus Palace” and the beauty of that book won her a place on my auto-buy list. I have been stockpiling her other earlier China-set historical romances for the TBR.
Gunpower Alchemy is the first book in the Gunpowder Chronicles a steampunk flavored speculative/alternative history fiction series set in China during Qing Dynasty & the Opium Wars. The series follows Soling a young woman whose father, once the Chief Engineer of the Empire and head of the Ministry of Science, was executed by the Emperor when China's navy fell before the Yangguizi’s steam-powered iron-ships. Ten years later, the Yangguizi (English) control many of the China’s port cities, insurrectionists are raiding cities in the interior, opium addiction is at all time high. Soling has grown up in poverty, taking care of her opium addicted mother and younger brother Tian after they were were exiled from Peking. There is nothing genteel about their situation, but Soling has managed to provide for them, attaching herself to the village doctor, learning to practice acupuncture and training to be a healer, while slowly selling the few of her father’s precious trinkets and inventions they were able to bring with them out of Peking to ensure her mother always has her next dose. When she travels out of her small village to the provincial center to get a better price for the last of these treasures, a foreign-made metal puzzle box, she doesn’t realize that her life will be changing dramatically once again.
The world-building in Gunpower Alchemy is fantastic. Lin creates vibrant steam gunpowder-punk China, with acupuncture inspired bio-mechanical devices, gunpowder powered junks, and delicate kite-like dirigibles and gliders. The world of the Gunpowder Chronicles is both familiar and surprising. The world never feels artificial but instead feels lived in and grounded by the weight of the well-developed characters that inhabit it.
Jin Soling is recruited by the Crown Prince to track down her father’s associates in an effort to reclaim some of his discoveries for the benefit of the empire. Some of these men are outlaws on the run from the Emperor since her father’s execution. The Crown Prince sends her to work with Chang-wei, her father’s protege, to whom she was once betrothed. They had never met, but have been ghostly presences in each others lives, haunting each other with might-have-beens. The stakes are very high for Soling through out the story. If she successfully fulfills this quest, she could see her family honor restored and secure a better future for her brother Tian, but if she fails she could die a world away from the family that depends on her. Chang-wei tries to dissuade her from participating, and feels great responsibility for her but Soling refuses to stay home when there is a chance to better her own life and that of her family. In the end she has the resourcefulness, observational skills and occasionally the right life-experiences to help her and Chang-wei to survive the many perilous situations they encounter.
This novel is the first of a projected three stories following Soling and Chang-wei and and while we have resolution to one storyline in this book, the overarching plot of the Opium Wars & internal insurrectionist threat against the empire remain. The romantic plot is progressing and clearly will continue to develop in the next book.
I loved roaming around Lin’s Gunpowder-punk China, meeting mad or madly brilliant scientists, tinkerers and engineers, to face down passionate and ruthless rebels, whose cause is not unjust but who pose great danger to Soling and her family. I loved how Soling, Chang-wei, & Yang all wrestle with how they should balance the demands of Emperor, Nation, Family and Self. I can’t wait to read more.
A review copy of this novel was made available by Penguin Group: Intermix via NetGalley