Jin Soling leads a happy childhood in Peking, China during the Qing Dynasty of the 1840s. Her father, a respected chief engineer, is able to provide for his family well. Concerns linger, however, about the foreign ships in the harbor. Their iron ships, access to opium, and influence in some quarters of the country makes them a threat. The Emperor, considered infallible, seeks to blame someone for his vulnerability. The person who receives that blame is Soling’s father, who is led away and killed.
The engineer’s family is forced to flee the city and live in poverty. Jin Soling, the daughter who learned much at the feet of her father, her mother, an opium addict, and her young brother barely scrape by with meager rations. Soling’s mother is unable to help because of her addiction and Soling is only able to contribute what she makes as a doctor’s assistant.
When Soling comes across an intricate box that her father made, she knows that it is the only thing of value that she has left to sell. She travels to the city to sell the box, but no one will buy it. Instead, she is taken to a government official who demands her assistance. She is compelled to do as he asks. What follows is an adventure through local rebellions, pirate ships, and scientific advances to reunite Soling’s family and to restore calm to the city.
Having read most of Jeannie Lin’s books, I can testify that what she has done well in previous books, she continues to do well in Gunpowder Alchemy. The beauty of the Chinese culture and traditions is on display here, as is the concept of honor and integrity. The nuances between differing regions of China are spotlighted, as the reader learns the contrasts between imperial China and the more rural towns. In addition, the impact of the English and their influence upon Chinese culture is touched upon and is fascinating to read.
Jin Soling is a capable narrator, and her insights spur the book along. With her former husband-to-be, Chang-wei, by her side, Soling and Chang-wei are able to use engineering and science to get themselves out of several scrapes. They encounter pirates, a lady rebel leader, and a rebel force as they seek to be reunited with Soling’s family. The steampunk in the novel is “steampunk lite”, not difficult to understand an
d is interesting to anyone—even those with little interest in science.
In some places, Gunpowder Alchemy, got bogged down with detail or the “on the road” aspect of the story. I would have appreciated more character development and less rush onto the next plot point. Some of the plot threads were not fully developed, such as the tainted opium in the city, or what will happen with the outlaw friend who has turned his back on his loyalty to the Emperor. I can only assume that these are questions that will be answered in the next book in the series.
If the romance in Lin’s books is usually a slow burn (and it really is, in a wonderful way), then the romance between Soling and Chang-wei in Gunpowder Alchemy moves at a glacial pace. Short of a sweet kiss and a few stolen accidental touches, their romance remains strictly chaste.
I look forward to reading the next installment of this series. I know that I will be immersed in a fascinating world, and I would love to see what happens next to these characters.
*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Regina