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…
I love steampunk fiction, so when I came across Gunpowder Alchemy on NetGalley, I downloaded it immediately. Happily, this one did not disappoint. Despite the fact that this one did not have the highest level of steampunk elements that I’ve seen in the genre, I fell in love with the unique setting. There are a lot of steampunk books out there, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across one that not only features Asian characters, but an Asian setting as well.
I’m not Asian, so I can’t speak about the accuracy of Lin’s setting, and I am going to assume that the author knows what she’s talking out. What I will say is that when I started reading I was struck by the feeling that this was “other”. Immediately I was aware that this was not a Western world-set novel and it was a completely different perspective from most books that I read. For example, when Soling encounters a white man on her adventure, it is her description of this white man that really hit home that I was reading something different:
Standing over me was the strangest man I had ever seen. I had heard the Yangguizi had blue eyes and golden hair, but the few I’d caught a glimpse of so far had been darker in coloring. I had just dismissed the tales of ghosts as exaggeration, but this man was startling fair skinned. He was dressed in a waistcoat similar to what Yang had worn. The material was gray and somber, though his demeanor was anything but. His lips were parted in a grin that bared teeth and spoke of familiarity (p. 134).
Never have a I been more aware of how whitewashed my own reading is. I really think the author succeeded in bringing something different to the steampunk genre by setting this novel in China and had her characters being Chinese. For me, there was a sense of authenticity about the characters that made this a unique and memorable reading experience.
What also stood out strongly for me as non-Western was the representation of emotions and their external expression. The main character, Soling, is an eighteen-year-old and throughout the novel her feelings and thoughts are restrained. It’s not that she’s unemotional, it is that it’s not the norm to be expressive of emotions. Ultimately, it was the subdued internal life that really changed my reading experience of Gunpowder Alchemy. This restraint is not something that I have come across and I personally viewed it as a method for the author to demonstrate to readers that Soling and the other characters were of a certain cultural background, which stands out for me since it is not my own. I really liked this element to the novel. It was unexpected since this one falls more in the romance category, but I think it worked really well and will suit readers looking for something outside the norm.
As for the romance, while enjoyable, it was not definitively resolved by the end of the book. What readers should be aware of is that Gunpowder Alchemy is the first in a series, so this first novel serves as an introduction to the world and the character’s that are going to be existing within it. What I will say about the romance is that it is very understated. This is not your conventional historical romance or even steampunk romance. A romance is there, but it’s not taking centre stage. While I wasn’t expecting the romance to be so light, what was there was rather touching and seemed more meaningful because it wasn’t in the forefront. A lot was conveyed between Soling and Chang-wei in their actions towards one another, but the romance didn’t progress past a single kiss. Personally, I don’t think many romances can pass this off and still please readers, but I think Gunpowder Alchemy succeeds in making this less-explicit romance work and appear believable.
Lastly, I will also mention that the overarching political turmoil that I suspect will be what binds the books in this series together was also extremely well done. There was a lot going on in Soling’s world. She’s compelled to protect her family, but she’s also conflicted by her loyalty to the emperor, even if he did order the death of her father. The events that are happening in Gunpowder Alchemy are complex and not resolved by the end of the novel, in fact, you could argue that they are only getting started now that Soling has made a decision to abandon her passive attitude and become involved in the fight. Whether or not she had made the right choice, well, that’s what the next book is for.
Gunpowder Alchemy is a very interesting steampunk novel. I loved the setting and I loved the uniqueness of the characters. I know that I will be back for book two in the series and I wish I knew when to expect it!
When most steampunk fantasy takes place in an Anglo-Saxon, predominantly British setting, Gunpowder Alchemy mixes steampunk and a vivid, original Chinese setting. All the familiar elements of steampunk are present, except for one: an English (specifically Victorian) environment. There is definitely a place in steampunk for different cultural and historical settings, and this book demonstrates that very well.
The world is absolutely unique to the genre, given the Anglo-Saxon world’s predominance in steampunk. Historical (alternate) China is strongly evoked throughout the novel, and the period is full of exciting, interesting events. I found the cultural clashes and hints at imperialism fascinating, especially with the Chinese perspective on this conflict. Discussion of the opium trade and its effects on Soling’s loved ones, as well as complete strangers, are relevant to discussions today about other addictions and drug trade routes, while at the same time creating a specific sense of time and place. In the book, this issue is writ large and small, with cultural and personal implications, as Soling’s mother is dealing with opium addiction, and a minor mystery arc involves the opium trade.
As she journeys, Soling develops a stronger sense of self. She comes into conflict with different ideals and viewpoints, experiences a wider, more multicultural world (including the Western invaders, but also different Chinese cultures), and begins to expand her healing potential. She “awakens” to the world around her, which is crucial in the growth of any person or character. I really enjoyed following along with her, and I’m excited to read more about the person she had become at the end of the novel. Her final decision was not entirely convincing – leading up to that point, she had been almost entirely leaning toward making the opposite decision. While I wish that had made more sense, I am glad that the second novel won’t start back in the same place as the first.
I really enjoyed the romance. I saw it more center stage than Jaclyn did, since it parallels and is woven through Soling’s journey. Set up very neatly in the beginning when Soling unexpectedly encounters her former betrothed (they were betrothed before Soling’s world fell apart, when she was ten and he something like eighteen) in the imperial palace, it follows through with only a brief break in their interaction. Slow and sweet, the enveloping culture gives it character and definition. There are rules and proprieties and respect on both sides that keep it from advancing too quickly. It creeps up on Soling how much she cares for Chang-wei, while Chang-wei’s affections are obviously engaged from early on. Chang-wei’s character provided a lot of food for thought, since his loyalty to the empire, more like nationalism than personal loyalty, contrasts sharply with Soling’s loyalties to her family and loved ones. While I think this could have been more subtly portrayed and more meaningful than it was, this source of external conflict between the two main characters could be further developed and more influential in future books.
The pacing gets bogged down in one place, when the plot pauses for explication and the introduction of a mystery arc. This takes place on a ship, and the main focus is on Soling discovering secrets and weird things that – sort of – tie back into the plot. The mystery here adds another common steampunk element to the story, without really delving into it or concluding it in a satisfactory way. I expect this section, and the resulting mystery arc, to play a bigger role in the next books in the series.
Overall, I think that most of the elements of this story were wrapped up rather simply, and I would have enjoyed more complexity, a deeper exploration of the war, the culture, and the relationships. That written, this is a well-written, evocative, original, and delightful steampunk fantasy that deserves to be read by all fans of the steampunk genre. Most importantly, I am left with a strong desire to learn more about China’s history, which is something that good literature (and genre fiction) have in common. Some of the most familiar details: the Chinese opposition to opening its ports for trade with the West, the opium trade, and Han foot-binding, are only the tiniest snippets of a rich history and culture not explored often enough in genre fiction.
*Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.
If you enjoyed the subdued nature of the romance in Gunpowder Alchemy, we highly recommend Clockwork Heart. In Clockwork Heart the romance doesn’t play a huge role and like Soling and Chang-wei’s relationship, its nuances are subtle. It’s also an interesting steampunk read since it, like Gunpowder Alchemy, is not set in the expected Victorian London.
For fans of the more adventurous nature of Gunpowder Alchemy, a good follow-up would be Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris’ Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series. This series is more of a mystery, but it’s a great read and will likely to appeal to readers looking for a more traditional steampunk novel. Start with book one, Phoenix Rising.
Irenicon has both understated romance and a slightly diverse (Renaissance Italian-infused) setting. The plot is much different, with a focus on intercity gang warfare, original imperial politics, and bridge-building. Look out for the Biblical references.