Jeannie Lin’s 2017 Gunpowder Alchemy is the first novel in her Gunpowder Chronicles.
1842: Chief Engineer Jin Zhi-fu’s final service to the Chinese empire was to accept all blame for the empire’s disastrous defeat by the Western powers. The emperor being perfect by definition, no blame could be placed on his orders. While not supported by mere facts, Jin’s guilt serves a higher purpose. He is executed for his unforgivable crimes.
Eight years later his family is living in disgrace in an obscure village. Jin’s daughter Soling is desperately trying to keep her opium addicted mother alive and supplied with the drugs she needs. She also must keep her younger brother Tian out of back-breaking servitude. When necessary, she sells family heirlooms. Now she is down to her final treasure, a puzzle box.
Braving the bandits who plague troubled Qing China, Soling undertakes a journey to nearby Changsha. Her hopes to sell the puzzle box come to nothing. Nobody will buy it. Worse, her efforts bring her to the attention of officials who have been looking for her for some time.
She is detained and transported to Canton, where she is presented to Crown Prince Yizhu. Yizhu is determined to secure the empire and drive the foreign Yangguizi from China. To this end, he has quietly revived Jin’s research and development projects. Jin’s documents were to have been burned after he was beheaded, but only a portion were destroyed. As well, Jin’s subordinates are still alive: Engineer Chen (Soling’s former fiancé) is already part of the prince’s retinue. Jin’s trusted right-hand man, Yang Hanzhu, has proven more elusive. This where Soling comes in.
Unenthusiastic about serving an empire that scapegoated her father, Soling only agrees to the mission on the condition that her family will be restored to its former wealth and status. Having secured such promises (as reliable as the prince’s word, which may not be reliable) she allows herself to be used as bait to draw in Yang Hanzhu. Surely he will recognize his old mentor’s daughter and drop his guard accordingly.
The plan is mostly successful. Yang does recognize Soling. But rather than allow the prince’s agents to detain him, Yang kidnaps Soling and carries her off to his base far across the sea. It is but the first step of an adventure that will send Soling crisscrossing China, ultimately trapping her in a city about to fall to the rebels. Her survival seems unlikely.
Wait, you say, aren’t the Manchurians of the Qing Dynasty also invaders imposing foreign rule on China? In an astonishing twist, while Soling’s fellow Manchurians in the upper classes identify as Chinese and are filled with nationalistic outrage at the Western invaders, the Han majority in general and the rebels in particular take a somewhat less charitable view about the nationality of Manchurians. It’s as though humans have a remarkable capacity for drawing arbitrary lines.
Lin appears to specialize in Tang Dynasty historical romances. This is a Qing Dynasty steampunk novel, but there’s still a romance. Which of the two men — dutiful Chen or bold iconoclast Yang — will win her heart seems to be resolved in this volume. However, as it’s merely the first volume in a series, no doubt there is room for sudden reversals. Both Chen and Yang have their virtues; there are also hints that they are both engaged in shady activities. Perhaps Soling will opt for someone else entirely.
As far as the steampunk angle goes … like all steampunk, this is a world where airships work better than they do in reality. As do gunpowder engines (a real idea that never really went anywhere in our world). In this setting, technology in general seems to be decades or even a century in advance of the historical 1850s. None of this helps China. The relative powers of China and the West remain unequal; China’s structural issues are equally debilitating. In fact, one could probably remove all the steampunk elements from this without much altering the plot. Too bad for China, because that strongly implies that the Taiping Rebellion(which killed as many as thirty million people) will play out as it did in our history.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with Gunpowder Alchemy 1—the prose is acceptable, the situations suitably fraught, the plot quick moving — but it didn’t really engage me. Might be because I’m not a huge romance fan or perhaps because I’m not keen on steampunk. I’d rate this book as “mostly harmless.” This may hit your sweet spot, but I probably won’t pursue the series.
1: There is an odd bit where a Chinese person can’t distinguish between L and R. I thought that was an issue forJapanese speakers? But perhaps I misremember.