During the first Opium War, China suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the British Royal Navy. The treaty that followed led to rebellion uprising against an already unpopular regime. In her novel Gunpowder Alchemy, Jeannie Lin reimagines this period of 1842, introducing steampunk elements. She hasn’t altered history (just yet). The Qing Navy is still outclassed by the British, but in her world, it’s engine against engine, gunpowder against steam. She also delves inside the revolution that follows, suggesting that had the emperor, nor indeed many of his subjects, not been averse to modernising his navy, the outcome of the conflict might have been very different.
Since her father’s execution for treason, Jin Soling and her family have lived in exile and poverty, her meagre earnings supplemented by the slow liquidation of the few treasures they have left. The last of these is a puzzle box left to her by her father. When Soling attempts to sell this final piece, however, she is captured and transported to a distant city where she meets with a crown prince. Eight years after her father’s death, the prince is interested in his inventions, the gunpowder engine in particular.
In exchange for a promise that her family name will be restored, Soling agrees to seek out one of her father’s former colleagues, Yang Hanzhu, another engineer who may hold the key to technology that could revolutionise the Chinese fleet. She remembers the man fondly as uncle, but is warned against him by someone she never expected to meet, Chen Chang-wei, the man she was betrothed to at the age of eight. Their betrothal was dissolved after her father’s execution, but a connection persists between the two regardless.
Not sure who to trust, Soling prepares to do the only thing that makes sense, take care of her family. This task will take her through war-torn territory, thrust her between loyalty and sacrifice and pit her against rebel armies.
Gunpowder Alchemy is well researched and the character of Soling is engaging. She’s not the plucky heroine I expected from the cover copy, however. She does stand up for herself and what she believes in, but so often her actions are dictated by the ebb and tide of the plot rather than her own gumption. She flows with the story too easily. Given the historical setting, that is somewhat understandable, but it does give the book a very episodic feel as Soling rolls from one bad situation to another.
The plot also feels rather episodic as the focus shifts from Soling redeeming her family name to the rebellion. The sub-plot regarding the possible poisoning of the opium being smuggled into China is left hanging. The steampunk elements also felt very ad hoc. There were plenty of machines and contrived tools, but none bar the gunpowder engine were essential to the plot and even that secret did little to turn the tide in this book. The title of the sequel, Clockwork Samurai, promises more steampunk inventions and a hope that they will feature more prominently.
Where Gunpowder Alchemy does shine is in the historical detail. Jeannie Lin is known for this and so it comes as no surprise. In particular, the scenes between Chen and his British friend, Dean Burton, expose and exploit cultural differences to good effect. The romance between Soling and Chen flutters shyly. The growing closeness between them is constrained by the social mores of their time, showcasing the author’s research and restraint. More would have been unrealistic.
Written for SFCrowsnest.