REVIEW: Gunpowder Alchemy by Jeannie Lin
Dear Ms. Lin,
I’ve enjoyed your recent historical romances very much, so when I saw you would be writing a new series set in a steampunk world based on China during the era of the Boxer Rebellion, I requested a copy for review.
The heroine and narrator of Gunpowder Alchemy is Jin Soling, a young woman who at age eighteen is responsible for her small household. Soling lives with her widowed mother, an opium addict, with her eight year old brother Tian, as well as a maid, Nan, in a small village.
Soling’s family wasn’t always what it’s now become. Her father, when he was still alive, led the Ministry of Science in its attempt to create a gunpowder engine. The family lived in Peking, and Soling’s mother was almost a different person, bright and alert instead of living in an opium trance.
But when Soling was ten and her brother a baby, the English invaded, and the Ministry of Science wasn’t yet ready with weapons to fight them off. Soling’s father delivered the bad news to the Emperor, and for this he was executed. His friends in the ministry of science scattered to the winds, including Chen Chang-Wei, the young man to whom her father had betrothed Soling. The family, still grieving, left Peking behind.
Now Soling works for the village physician, though such work is considered inappropriate for a woman. Her meager earnings supplement the money she makes by selling her father’s unusual inventions.
It is on a trip to sell her father’s last mechanical device, a kind of puzzle box, in the nearby city of Changsha, that Soling is captured by Inspector Aguda, a government official, who takes her on a journey to the port city of Canton, where Soling is brought before the Emperor’s son.
It turns out that Crown Prince Yizhu is determined to defeat the English at their own game. He recognizes that Soling’s father was right when he warned the Emperor that only through developing better technology could China win.
The prince and his scientists have tried to replicate the formula for gunpowder fuel which Soling’s father and the men working for him devised, but they have been unsuccessful. They believe that one of her father’s scientists, Yang Hanzhu, possesses the formula, but he disappeared with it after Soling’s father was executed and has since become lawless. The prince’s men believe he is dangerous.
The prince orders Soling to seek out Yang and acquire the gunpowder formula. Such a task is fraught with danger but Soling asks that her family name be restored and her mother and brother allowed to return to Peking is she succeeds.
Before she departs, Soling encounters Chen Chang-Wei, the man to whom her father once betrothed her when they were both quite young. Chang-Wei proves to be solicitous and concerned for Soling’s safety. He equips her with a bladed fan with which to defend herself and promises to get a message to her family.
Then Soling leaves for the streets of Canton. Soon she meets a boy who invites her to run after him, in a chase that causes her to lose the escorts Inspector Aguda provided for her, takes her aboard a ship, and brings her face to face with Yang Hanzhu.
But Yang won’t give up the gunpowder formula. Instead he takes Soling out to sea aboard his ship, and reveals to her that he believes Chen Chang-Wei isn’t to be trusted, that some of the opium shipments the English have brought to China are tainted and far more addictive than other opium. Though Soling wants to return to her family, she soon becomes absorbed in Yang’s alchemical work with opium samples.
Is the gunpowder formula the key to defeating the English, or is the key a cure for opium addiction? Is it Chen Chang Wei who is destined to win Soling’s heart, or Yang Hanzhu? Will Soling ever return to her family, and if so, will she still be the same young woman who left her home?
Gunpowder Alchemy has good qualities but when I picked it up I expected something different. I thought this would be a steampunk romance, in the same genre as Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas series and other steampunk romances, when the book is really a steampunk adventure story with romantic elements.
I had difficulty switching gears (no pun intended!) and therefore the first half, which focuses on Soling’s adventures rather than on a romantic relationship, was a frustrating reading experience.
It wasn’t until the second half that it became clear to me who Soling’s love interest would be for the rest of the book. The romance between this man and Soling became much more pronounced in the second half, and from this point on, as lovely as I’ve come to expect from you. More on that later.
The adventure part of the story was less successful for me. This was partly due to my wrong genre expectations, and partly because in the first half of the book, Soling’s heart wasn’t in her adventures. I didn’t feel she was filled with determination to attain the gunpowder formula and restore her family’s name. Instead it seemed all she wanted was to get back to her mother and brother and be reunited with them.
Soling’s early adventures read more like things that befell her than things she tackled head on; she wasn’t actively going after what she passionately wanted, but was being used for other people’s goals instead. That made it harder to enjoy those events. But around the midpoint of the novel Soling’s actions align with her goals, and that made the journey she undertook from then on more compelling than the earlier parts of the book.
I liked Soling—she was a beautifully drawn character, honorable, caring, and responsible. This last interfered a bit with the book’s coming-of-age aspect. Though only eighteen, she didn’t have much growing up to do on her journey—she was already shouldering a heavy burden of responsibilities when she first left home.
The man with whom Soling was eventually matched was a wonderful character but I don’t want to spoil his identity for readers. He and Soling were very well-matched and made for a great pairing. Their developing feelings for each other were the strongest aspect of the novel.
My favorite among the secondary characters was Tian, Soling’s eight-year-old brother. Tian was a solemn, intelligent boy who had inherited his father’s talents but wasn’t given the education to develop them. Even so, he managed to invent something that was helpful.
The worldbuilding was mostly good, with the invasion by the English and the brewing rebellion in the countryside depicted alongside gunpowder engines, bladed fans, and other inventions.
The one aspect of the inventions that didn’t work well was the quickness with which the characters were able to come up with them. Complicated devices were designed from scratch, built, tested, modified and then put to use without a hitch, all in the space of a few days, sometimes when the resources at hand were scarce. This wasn’t always believable.
The characters were divided between those loyal to the Emperor, those who rebelled because they saw him as unjust, and Soling, who was caught in the middle. While I wanted the side Soling ended up on to win so that she would survive, the fantasy reader in me wanted another reason to root for one side or the other. I wanted Soling to be emotionally invested in the outcome of the rebellion for her country so that the stakes would be higher than just personal ones. Perhaps that is something that is coming in book two.
I wanted more of an emotional scene between Soling and her mother as well, but since this book is only the first part of Soling’s story, that may also be something which will come later on.
It’s hard to know what to grade Gunpowder Alchemy. My enjoyment was around a C or C+ but the cover and the blurb accurately convey what the novel is about. It was the names of the author, the publisher, and the editor, and perhaps also wishful thinking, that made me expect a steampunk romance rather than an adventure story with romantic elements set in a steampunk world, so I can’t hold the book responsible for that. My best guess is that the right grade is a C+/B-.
I couldn’t wait to start that book, and have put it aside for a while because it was slow! This is incredibly ironic, as I rail on twitter about wanting more slow burn roms/slow developing stories. I’m hoping that a few days and a different frame of mind will put me more in the mood. I love Lin’s writing, and Soling has started to become an interesting character.
I am going to give it another try. I think I know who the love interest is, but I’m hoping to get surprised nevertheless.
Thanks for the review, Janine. Out of the 50+ books I’ve read this year, the only romances I enjoyed were by Lin. I think I will make this book a new year TBR, when I have more time for a slow burn, instead of jumping on it right away at this busy time.
Thanks for this review, Janine! I’m reading as many novels “with romantic elements” as genre romance these days, so I think the balance will work well for me. Great review.
@Sunita: I am finding the “romantic elements” novels I have been reading lately far more satisfying than most of the romances I’ve in the past few months. I was hesitating on Gunpowder Alchemy, but based on your review, Janine, and my enjoyment of Lin’s prior books, I think that this might be just what I’m looking for at the moment.
@Allison: I put it aside for that reason a few times, especially during the first half. I think it might have helped me to know in advance not to expect the structure of a romance novel. For a romance, it really is a slow burn. As an adventure, it gets going sooner.
@Tanya: I’m so glad you enjoyed her historicals, and hope you enjoy this one, too.
@Sunita & @Lynnd: Thanks. I hope you like it. Novels with romantic elements usually work really well for me, so it was hard to gauge how much of my issues had to do with expecting something else, and how much with the book itself.
I was so happy to see this review, Janine, since I had just finished Gunpowder Alchemy last week, and had recommended it on Jane’s #lastbestread thread. I enjoyed it a bit more than you, rating it somewhere in the B to B- range. I didn’t go into it with any particular expectations, knowing that it was the first in a series, rather than a stand alone, which may partially explain why I didn’t find the beginning especially slow. It seemed to me that Lin was carefully laying out the rules and history for this AW, and for Soling’s personal history. The romance was slow to develop, which I actually liked. I’m looking forward to the next in the series very much.
Linn’s romances and Sabrina Bowen’s romances were the only het romances I loved this year, so definitely sold, even if it just has romantic elements. Romantic plot ends well, right? Thanks for the great review Janine.
@Aoife: I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it! I knew this book was the first in a series, but I didn’t know if the series would be about the same characters or about different ones. Knowing that it was only the first book about Soling might have helped with the pacing issues, but again, I can’t be sure.
@Sirius: Somewhat SPOILERY
The romance plot has a kind of an HFN, while the China plot is unresolved at the end. Soling’s story will continue in a second book. I expect the other guy will play a role in that book, but I’m not entirely sure if there will be a triangle, or if Soling will be paired more strongly with the guy she’s in love at the end of this one.
I’m looking forward to this one. I loved Jeannie Lin’s earlier books, and personally, I like more adventure in my romances. My only complaint is that this, like her last book, is only available as an ebook. I so much prefer paper. (I know, that makes me some kind of troglodyte, but I’m not the only one in the world.)
Shoot, my comment got lost in the downtime. I was saying that I agreed that the adventure becomes more interesting in the second half, when Soling takes a more active role and it’s not just things happening to her over and over.
I enjoyed this a lot more than you did. I wasn’t at all bothered by the time it took for Soling to learn to be the heroine of her own story, or by the devotion she felt to her family; it was more believable to me that she didn’t just fling herself into the role of adventuress, since it wasn’t something she sought out.
I was glad not to immediately know who her romance interest would be; I found it intriguing to wonder, given their circumstances. But then I’m a bit burned out on insta-lust, and I’m also reading a lot of books from other genres that have romantic elements these days.
Like a couple of other comments, I also prefer my fantasy/SF/adventure books to have hint of romance. I like romantic elements, rather than straight up romance for this style of book. I think I was waiting for the action to get rolling rather than the romance.
But I will be going back to this book. It might be a nice book to curl up with over Christmas.
@Lillian Marek: I hope you enjoy it.
@Willaful: Sorry your comment got lost. I agree that Soling’s early passivity didn’t serve the book well.
@SonomaLass: I’m also tired of insta-lust and read a lot in genres with romantic elements. And I wasn’t bothered at all by Soling’s devotion to her family– her love for them and her sense of responsibility for their household was one of her most endearing qualities.
What I wanted was more emotion from Soling. The issue for me was that what drove her (in this case, devotion to family) didn’t drive her actions for a good chunk of the book. I think if she’d been striving for something in that section rather simply having things happen to her, then her narration in that section wouldn’t have felt so flat.
@Janine: I very much agree about the flatness.
Me too, actually. It wasn’t a genre preference issue for me but rather a genre expectations issue.
But didn’t the action get rolling pretty quickly? A lot of things happen to Soling in the first half.
It’s hard for me to articulate my issues but the book feels to me like an in between genres kind of read and I was trying to figure out what to expect of it as I read it. In a romance genre novel, romantic feelings are the main focal point, but that wasn’t the case here. In a fantasy genre novel, saving the kingdom is usually the main drive for the protagonist. That wasn’t exactly the case here, at least not for Soling. She didn’t choose a side, or feel that was saving China was her own battle, even at the end. In a YA, coming of age is the central focus, but as I said, Soling was already a grown up at the beginning, so this novel didn’t feel like crossing the threshold into adulthood, either. And if it’s not what I expect of any of these genres, then adventure story is what I’m left with, but her heart wasn’t in her adventures and she was reluctant to be away from home the whole time.
Please come back and let me know what you thought of it, if you’re so inclined. I would love to hear what you think and whether, like Willaful and I, you feel the second half works better than the first.
Great review, Janine!
I enjoyed this one much more than you did. It’s interesting what you said about how your expectations shaped the reading experience, because they also shaped mine, albeit in a more positive way. To me, the key was the 1st person POV, which I associate with fiction that has romantic elements, but isn’t necessarily a proper romance (YA, Urban Fantasy, etc.), so the moment I started the book, my expectations shifted (lucky for me, because it took me more than half the book to figure out who the love interest was, so I don’t blame you for being a bit thrown).
“The adventure part of the story was less successful for me. This was partly due to my wrong genre expectations, and partly because in the first half of the book, Soling’s heart wasn’t in her adventures. I didn’t feel she was filled with determination to attain the gunpowder formula and restore her family’s name. Instead it seemed all she wanted was to get back to her mother and brother and be reunited with them.”
This is one of the reasons why I loved Soling and why I can’t wait to read the next book. She was a bit of a reluctant heroine just trying to survive the adventures she was forced into, and I liked that her heart wasn’t in it. I think she’s going to have a very interesting character ARC throughout the series.
@Brie: There are so many first person romances these days that the use of first person wasn’t a strong enough signal to me.
What do you think her arc is going to be? I was trying to figure that out. The series is just two books, right?
If her arc is to accept that her role is to do all she can to help one side in the empire/rebellion conflict, or to save China from the ravages of opium addiction, then I think that she should at least start to wonder if that’s her role by the halfway point of her journey, or the end of this first book. And she wasn’t there yet, or do you feel that she was?
At the end of the book she makes a decision to take action and stop being passive. I’m not sure where that decision will take her, because in this book the rebels and the empire are portrayed (or Soling sees them) ambiguously enough that both serve as heroes-ish and villains at different points, although the opium thing makes me think the rebels will be the ultimate bad guys. So I think she’s taking baby steps towards becoming a heroine, and that’s what I’m excited to see. The character and relationship development is slow, though, and if it’s just two books (which I didn’t know), I worry that the next story will feel rushed when compared to this one.
@Brie: To clarify, I’m not certain that it’s just two books. I think I read somewhere that Lin was under contract for two, but for all I know it’s possible that the contract will be extended, or that I’m misremembering. But I was thinking it was a two book series when I read which contributed to my feeling that the structure wasn’t what I expected.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
I didn’t read Soling’s decision at the end of the book as being one to take action and stop being passive. I saw her decision as motivated by not wanting to be parted from the guy she had fallen for, rather than by emotional investment in the outcome of the political situation. It wasn’t her impetus to do what she did, the guy asked her. Maybe I’m not giving her enough credit, but her growth felt very subtle and mild to me, and I wanted more of an arc. If the series is intended to have more than two books, though, then it’s quite possible that her growth is paced well.
I think it’s a combination of the two: following the guy and wanting to take action, but to me, following the guy is the catalyst and not the end goal. I mean, the last line of the book is “I was ready to fight”. But even if her newfound resolution was motivated by love and not wanting to be apart from him, she’s still moving towards that goal of becoming the heroine of her own adventures. That she wasn’t particularly passionate about a cause, made her more believable to me, because she was very young and forced into a difficult position, so I’m fine with her having such a subtle character arc (although I totally see where you’re coming from, it just wasn’t an issue for me).
I hope there are more than two books, because I can easily see this series growing in terms of character development, but also in terms of worldbuilding. There’s a lot of potential here.
I can see where you’re coming from too. I’m a reader who generally likes a more pronounced arc in books so that may be a personal preference thing. The last line didn’t register with me, but I’ll tell you what I thought was Soling’s most heroic moment was– when she suggested making the mechanical device for the rebel leader’s feet. That was good because she took action and initiative. Soling didn’t have to be passionate about a cause to start with to please me. I think I would have been satisfied had I gotten a sense of the arc you describe.
@Janine: That was my favorite part of the book. Not only because she’s finally taking an active role, but because it integrated the setting and the steampunk elements so beautifully. And was around such a complex emotional/cultural issue.
@Willaful: Yes, that was great!
I read this over the holiday and really enjoyed it. Maybe because I was prepared for the book to be slow, it didn’t feel that way to me. The opening chapters made it clear for me that this was as much an adventure as a romance, and I thought the adventure part was really well done. I didn’t find Soling at all passive; she’s an 18YO girl who has a structurally subordinate position in her culture. Given that, I thought she was pretty active and took opportunities to act where she could. I thought the steampunk part was present without being particularly overt or intrusive (except for that one section you discuss, Janine, which I agree strained credulity even within this world).
I thought the romantic arc was well done, too, because had she been lusting over the potential love interests from the time she met them I would have found that a distraction from the huge issues she had to deal with. But then, that’s probably why I don’t read much PNR. ;)
My sense was that her task/goal in this installment was to get back to her family and do what she could to ensure their safety and well-being. She accomplished that, which was no small feat. So in the next installment she can move on to the next goal, which presumably is a more standard-heroine type of thing.
I found some of the writing flat and tried to figure out why. I think it’s because while Lin’s novels always have a more formal, understated style, this is an AU or fantasy historical, and so what felt appropriate in real-world China felt less effective in AU China.
@Sunita: It’s true that her role in her culture is subordinate, but the plot of the book also keeps her in that role for quite a long time. To me, she felt like a package being handed off for much of the first part of the book.
“I found some of the writing flat and tried to figure out why. I think it’s because while Lin’s novels always have a more formal, understated style, this is an AU or fantasy historical, and so what felt appropriate in real-world China felt less effective in AU China.”
That could be it. I was assuming that first-person is less suited to Lin’s style than third, but perhaps it was my expectations of first-person.
@Sunita: The romantic arc was well handled, I agree. I didn’t want lusting either– you’re the second person to say that so I wonder if I gave that impression before. I think genre expectations can affect a reading experience. Because I was expecting a romance, every time a guy showed up I wondered if he was the hero. If I had been expecting something different genre-wise, I might have enjoyed the adventure portion more.
I still really think the flatness stemmed at least partly from the fact Soling had limited personal stakes in the outcome of her mission.
Yes! In the first half, it felt like the men should have been the protagonists of the story because they were the ones making things happen.
Interesting that we all have different theories about the flatness of the narration.
@Janine: No, I didn’t get that impression. I do agree that genre expectations affect the reading experience, and I wonder if that also affects the different ways that you and Willaful saw Soling as passive whereas I did not. Because we were in her head the whole time, I didn’t see her as a package being handed around (although you’re right that the plot could be interpreted that way). I saw her as repeatedly having to deal with situations that she had very little control over. Obviously that’s an authorial choice; Lin could have made her much more proactive, plot-wise, but for me that probably would have been less satisfying because even thought this was AU China, it had a lot of the cultural context of historical China. Not that there weren’t any women with agency, but Soling was set up as an exile whose status and wealth had been stripped from her. I saw the story partly as her journey of regaining those resources. So the package part was almost inevitable, from my point of view.