Book Review: Gunpowder Alchemy by Jeannie Lin

Title: Gunpowder Alchemy (Gunpowder Chronicles Book 1)

Author: Jeannie Lin

Publisher: Intermix (ebook), Penguin Group USA, LLC, 2014, 280 pages

Copy Source: library/Overdrive ebook

Soling and her family live in a backwater village in rural China, in disgrace since the execution of her father, the Emperor’s chief engineer who took the blame for the loss of a war against the Yangguizi (English). Apprenticing herself to the local physician, Soling has managed to support her brother, her mother, their elderly maid, and even her mother’s opium addiction. As famine grows, she is forced to travel to the city to sell the last Jin family keepsake.

Apprehended by the city police, she is taken before Crown Prince Yizhu, who wishes to use her as bait to lure one of her father’s supporters, Yang Hanzhu, in hopes of obtaining a missing formula. It is there she also meets her former betrothed, Chang-wei, for the first time.

What follows is quite the adventure, with kidnappings, Soling’s first exposure to the Yangguizi, river pirates, gunpowder engines, tainted opium, rebellion, and encounters with Lady Su and the Heavenly Kingdom Army. And during all of this, a growing attraction, though Soling considers herself to have long been rendered unmarriageable due to her family’s disgrace.

Set during the Opium Wars, Soling is a narrator who can be quite determined, though mostly she is just an upper class girl who was displaced at a young age and manages to adapt to her circumstances. Her former betrothed, Chang-wei, is always a gentleman and so the romance aspect reflects this. When he actually kisses Soling (tiny spoiler), it is almost surprising but is sweetly gratifying.

I’ve read some reviews that claim this is not truly a Steampunk novel. I’m not so sure I would agree. No, there aren’t overwhelming amounts of steam technology, but there are mechanical limbs (attached with acupuncture needles, which I thought was an interesting touch), automated carriages, and gunpowder powered engines.  Soling has a (very cool) needle gun and, later, a war fan (even cooler) for protection.  The steam technology is more the province of the Yangguizi, with gunpowder fueling the technology of the Chinese. Again, an interesting choice and one that does not necessarily preclude the classification of the novel as Steampunk.

3.5/5 stars.  While I enjoyed Gunpowder Alchemy, I just never felt excited by the story.  It is beautifully written, but the characters seemed to lack a certain spark.  This could be a cultural thing, as the characters are so bound by their roles in society and act accordingly.  And while I will probably read the next book in the series, I feel no excitement for the release date.

On a final note, I just have to say that Yang Hanzhu has definite Romantic Male Lead Potential. Yep, Yang should get his own storyline if not his own book. And I don’t think he’d be quite so much the gentleman as Chang-wei, being an alchemist, a ship’s captain and an outlaw, just sayin’…

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