Gunpowder Alchemy is the first book in a steampunk series set in China during the Opium Wars. It’s a fun, fresh setting, with interesting, complex characters and a great balance of plot, romance, and steampunk geeky goodness. You should know that it’s an adventure series with a lot of romance, not a romance novel with a lot of adventure. Also, it ends on a cliffhanger (WHY GOD WHY).
The plot involves Jin Soling, the daughter of a scientist who was executed by The Emperor in 1842. She lives with her mother, who is addicted to opium, their maidservant, and her brother, who is eight years old, in exile in a small village. Soling works with the local physician and is particularly adept with acupuncture. She supports the family through this work as well as by slowly selling off the family’s possessions from their richer days.
When Soling tries to sell a puzzle box that her father had invented, she’s arrested and taken to the Prince. The Prince wants Soling to recruit the inventors who once worked alongside her father to return to the Emperor’s service. In particular, he wants her to recruit Yang Hanzhu, who joined the rebels. To help her family, Soling must find and recruit Yang Hanzhu, with the help of Chen Chang-wei. This is awkward, because, long ago, Chang-wei was supposed to marry Soling. The marriage was arranged when she was very young, and was broken off when her family was disgraced.
Soling has adventures on land, air, and sea, both with and without Chang-wei. She and Chang-wei develop a powerful attraction but he is ambitious and loyal to the Empire, and she worries about whether she can trust him and whether she will impede his ambitions. The story is told entirely from her point of view, but Chang-wei comes across as a complex, interesting character, one who feels both protective of Soling and deeply respectful of her abilities. She has an annoying but, let’s face it, very common, tendency to freeze up during combat but there’s a hint that in following books she’ll get better about that. She’s great at medicine and science, and the scenes in which she and Chang-wei team up to invent things are delightful.
Because this is the first book in the series, the romance is not resolved, but it takes shape in this book, so I found myself very invested in it. Chang-wei is such a complicated character in terms of his loyalties and philosophies that I can picture a lot of ways for the author to drive a wedge in between Soling and himself. But I hope she doesn’t. There’s plenty of tension and conflict in this story without having tension and conflict between Soling and Chang-wei and I really love them as a team.
I was not as taken by the scenes involving Yang Hanzhu. He’s a huge character, and then he just disappears (for a sequel, perhaps). There’s supposed to be some romantic tension between him and Soling but even though he’s not much older than her, she grew up calling him “Uncle” which makes the whole romantic tension thing kind of gross. I just couldn’t get past the idea that they once had that kind of familial bond even though they are not actually related and the age difference is small. If this is supposed to be a love triangle in the making, it’s not a convincing one so far.
The book is set in China, during the Opium Wars. You don’t have to know anything about the Opium Wars to follow the book. It’s very accessible and exciting on its own term. But the history is fascinating. You can find more information about it at author Jeannie Lin’s blog.
Although the series is very much fiction, there’s a lot of stuff that I assumed was fantasy that’s actually history. All the major characters are Chinese, and the steampunk elements fit this time period, culture, and setting perfectly. My favorite steampunky bit involves Chang-wei and Soling making prosthetics for a rebel leader (based on a real woman, Su Sanniang!!!!) with bound feet. They use acupuncture points to attach the prosthesis to the foot and lower leg, which means that the prosthesis are controlled by nerve impulses just like a foot.
This is such an exciting time in the steampunk genre. After a period during which it seemed every single steampunk book was set in either England or the USA and featured all white characters, we’re starting to see a more global approach to steampunk. This is exciting for me not just because all kinds of representation are important in literature and media across the board, but also because having diverse approaches to this specific genre makes it so much more interesting.
I love reading about the niece of Sherlock Holmes running amok in London as much as anybody (I adored The Baskerville Affair
Series, which begins with A Study in Silks
) ( A
) but I also enjoy reading about a fantasy steampunk version of India (The Dharian Affairs
), and about any of the settings and characters in the anthology Steampunk World
(ed. Sarah Hans) ( A
). Steampunk is inspired by a time of intense globalization and travel and it’s thrilling to see more of that explored, especially when it’s done well.
I had a great time with this book, I loved the setting and the characters, and I can’t wait for the sequel. I do have to confess that I’m nervous about the romance – I’m REALLY invested in Chang-wei and Soling but I can also see how things could go wrong. Fingers crossed. Now I have to go read about that real-life female rebel woman, because she sounds AMAZING.