Oh, but this was fun and charming.
Jeannie Lin is a historical romance author who launched a new Steampunk Historical Fantasy/Adventure (with a light touch of lovely romance on the side) series in November. Gunpowder Alchemy is the first book in the series and the last book I read in 2014.
Set in 1842, Gunpowder Alchemy takes place in an alternate-history China between the first Opium War (1839–1842) and second Opium War (1856-1860). In a “behind the scenes” post about the series, Lin talks about the historical setting and the elements for conflict that were already there as background on which to build a story: the circumstances surrounding the Opium Wars, the ensuing conflict with the British Empire and specific internal struggles within China.
Against this backdrop, Lin has started to develop a fantastic story of familial duty, of civic responsibility and its parallel hardships, as well as a coming-of-age for its main character Jin Soling.
Soling’s life has been difficult after the first Opium War and China’s defeat to the British forces. Her engineer father was one of those who fell to the emperor’s anger, her family’s fortune lost in the aftermath with her mother falling to the opium addiction that prevents her from effectively taking care of their family. Taking it upon herself to prevent the family from falling into poverty, Soling works with the village doctor and so life moves on with these personal tragedies and losses.
Then one day, Soling attempts to sell the last of her father’s trinkets and is caught red-handed and brought forth to face the Crown Prince, who makes her an offer she can’t refuse. He is working against the wishes of his own father in an attempt to bring together the best of China’s engineers and thinkers so they can fight the invaders. He believes Soling to be the one person capable to find and convince her father’s former allies to work for the Empire once more and sends her off across the land on this quest. In return, he will restore her family’s good name.
Soling is one of those quietly reflective heroines who is, at first, a pawn in someone else’s game, going from place to place without much choice. But just like in the best developed stories, the more she sees the world, the more people she meets, the more information she gathers, the more she slowly but surely takes charge. That progression is fantastic here, with an overarching political and social arc that is at turns exciting and thoughtful. Questions of loyalty and choice are the root to most of the conflict in the book. Gunpowder Alchemy is all the more engaging due to the side characters she meets along the way: from Soling’s mother (oh, what a cool backstory!) and brother to her pirate-engineer-rebel “uncle,” and Lady Su, the super-exciting character who is based on the real-life rebel general-leader, Su Sanniang.
Finally, one of the main secondary characters is Chang-wei, Soling’s one time fiancee (whom she had never met before her family’s fall from fortune, in an arranged marriage-to-be). Theirs is a complicated relationship, built upon that type of restrained feels with a side of slow-burning passion that must be contained because of honor…and I just love that type of romantic dynamics so much, I ate it all up with unrestrained gusto.
I can’t recommend it enough. Here’s to a sequel landing on my e-reader sooner rather than later.
In Book Smugglerish: 8 out of 10