In 1842, the gunpowder might of China’s Qing Dynasty fell to Britain’s steam engines. Furious, the Emperor ordered the death of his engineers—and killed China’s best chance of fighting back…
Since her father’s execution eight years ago, Jin Soling kept her family from falling into poverty. But her meager savings are running out, leaving her with no choice but to sell the last of her father’s possessions—her last memento of him. Only, while attempting to find a buyer, Soling is caught and brought before the Crown Prince. Unlike his father, the Emperor, the Prince knows that the only chance of expelling the English invaders is to once again unite China’s cleverest minds to create fantastic weapons. He also realizes that Soling is the one person who could convince her father’s former allies—many who have turned rebel—to once again work for the Empire. He promises to restore her family name if she’ll help him in his cause.
But after the betrayal of her family all those years ago, Soling is unsure if she can trust anyone in the Forbidden City—even if her heart is longing to believe in the engineer with a hidden past who was once meant to be her husband…
This blurb came from the author’s website.
E: I have enjoyed reading Lin in the past so when I saw she was starting a new series I was extremely curious. Reading the blurb made me even more curious since Lin seemed to be combining several interesting historical elements, some culturalisms, a determined woman, and social change. I enjoyed the combination and the subdued slow growing romance threaded through the story.
Marlene: I have also enjoyed reading Lin in previous outings. This story particularly sounded interesting – the background reminded me a bit of an Asian-themed fantasy I read a few years ago that had some similarities, although what the title was is driving me crazy.
But Gunpowder Alchemy combined steampunk technology with an era of cultural change in a society that we don’t often see in urban fantasy or steampunk. So it looked good from the beginning and it was – both the slow building romance and the peek into a society we don’t often see in speculative fiction. It was a refreshing change of pace from all the Western/Celtic/Medieval based fantasy or Victorian based steampunk.
E: Soling grew up slightly pampered as the daughter of the Emperor’s chief engineer. She was allowed free reign of the labs and learned several different things along the way to include some of the art and science of acupuncture. She was also happy with the knowledge of her arranged marriage to one of her father’s promising engineers and then her life changed forever. Britain invaded with its traders protected by steam engines and the Emperor in retaliation had all of his engineers killed and their families exiled into poverty. Soling and her mother worked hard trying to keep what remained of their family together but gradually her mother sank into an opium addiction haze which claimed more and more of their limited funds forcing Soling to try to sell the last object from her father’s collection. There she gained the attention of the Crown Prince and was sent on an errand to find the last of her father’s secrets and in return her family would be protected. Soling’s journey took her through a variety of different locations, experiences, and really opened her eyes to life across the Empire and what levels desperate people were willing to sink to. Yet through it all she maintained her loyalty to her family and her belief that things could and would get better.
Marlene: Soling was an interesting choice for a point-of-view character because her culture has taught her that she is not supposed to be the prime mover of events or the head of her household. And yet, because of the experiences her family has survived, it is necessary that she take on a role she’s not intended to be suitable for – and yet she is. She’s very practical minded and does what is necessary, no matter how frightened she might be of events or the possible consequences.
She was intended to be a protected little flower, and instead, she finds purpose as a healer and self-taught engineer, working and fighting for peace. But first she has to drag herself out of the uncomfortable little cocoon that circumstances have created, and make her own way in the world. At first, she is pushed and pulled by circumstances beyond her control, but she learns to get what she can out of each turn of fate.
E: I really enjoyed the combination of science, art, biology, and creative imagination from Soling and the surviving members of her father’s engineers as they all struggled with the new reality. One took the tactic of learning as much as possible from the invaders, another tried their best to stay with traditional methods, while the third loyal to none focused his attention on trying to figure out why the British version of opium was having such a deleterious impact on Chinese people. Caught in the middle was Soling. I thought how she struggled to navigate change and the contrast between her memories of the men and who they had become while facing danger from a variety of different sources was captivating. I liked her slow path towards trusting towards her former betrothed even as she started to discover his past was full of secrets making him a much more complicated man then she thought. It was good seeing them balance with both facing potential sacrifices to keep their promises. I look forward to seeing their relationship grow.
Marlene: I liked the aspect of the story that had Soling weighing her childhood memories of her father’s men with her own adult perceptions. We often find that childhood homes and adults we met as children are smaller or less impressive when we meet them as adults. Soling has changed in the intervening time, and so have the men who used to see her as a bit of a mascot. Her memories of safety and trust conflict with the new reality. She has to remake judgments, and especially survive.
The contrast between the three different adaptations to the infiltration of the West and the change in Imperial circumstances provides part of the minefield that Soling must navigate through. That protecting her family remains her lodestone in the face of so much change gives her character strength.
E: Personally I have always been fascinated by the history of Asia so seeing how Lin took aspects of history I have wondered about and strung them together emphasizing how a reverence towards culture combined with a stealthy undermining of that same culture led to inescapable change was an absolute blast. I loved how Soling managed to retain her curiosity and her drive to make life better for others and in doing so made a difference despite all of the obstacles. I also thought the mental struggle evident in most of the primary characters between what they had been brought up to believe and what they had to face was well done. It was almost as if each primary character went through their own crisis of fate and while they survived, not all were able to adjust. Lin ended this first installment with the rising evidence of some mystery involving some new very dangerous opium strains and a need to develop a new method of warfare for a three front war. I continue to enjoy Lin’s voice in this new genre from her and as a result I am very interested in reading the next installment.
I give Gunpowder Alchemy a B
Marlene: It is refreshing to see a different world. So much speculative fiction, starts from a Western basis, that this alternate view of the forced opening of China to the British was a breath of fresh air. Every character in this story, especially Soling, has to struggle with the way that they have always been told the world is versus the way that things have actually worked out. The discovery that received truth is not the same as truth on the ground has been a hard lesson for many of the characters, as evidenced by the way they respond to change.
Soling’s romance with Chen Chang-wei develops very slowly, which fit the story and the times (even altered times) in which it is set. The beginning of the story, with its description of Soling’s childhood and current reduced circumstances, went just a bit slow for me, but was still enjoyable.
I also give Gunpowder Alchemy a B.