GUNPOWDER by Jack Kelly


Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World
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Old pro Kelly (Mad Dog, 1992, etc.) pens a popular history of the powder that has toppled kingdoms and uprooted societies for centuries.

And he actually spends a good deal of time focused on Asia before getting to what everyone already knows best: Europe. “A deeply rooted misconception in the West holds that the Chinese never used gunpowder for war, that they employed [it] for idle entertainment and children’s whizbangs,” writes Kelly, intent on this point from the beginning. What follows is a fascinating mini-treatise detailing the development of early firearms in the 10th-century Sung dynasty, the incorporation of gunpowder by successive invasions of Jurchens and Mongols, and the widespread use by the 13th century of musket-like weapons and cannon. This is all, of course, before the author gets into the meat of his discussion about how warring European principalities refined the devilish chemical until it was eventually displaced in the 19th century by synthetic propellants and high explosives. Contrasting East and West, Kelly notes that even though countries like China and India used gunpowder militarily much earlier than most people realize, they couldn’t hold a candle to the brutally efficient Europeans, who didn’t begin using it until 1311 (after most likely receiving it some decades before from China). While the French, British, and Americans were refining their gunpowder production methods and the killing power of their weaponry, “the denizens of the Chinese court looked on gunpowder technology as a low, noisy, dirty business.” And so it was. No matter how awesome or helpful gunpowder may have been, Kelly keeps reminding readers of the brutal violence always at the heart of what the Chinese called the “fire drug.”

Fiery prose sparks this exciting story as the author jumps through the centuries with nimble pose and a learned eye.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-465-03718-6
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2004


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