Gunpowder Alchemy (The Gunpowder Chronicles) - Jeannie Lin

I recently picked up Gunpowder Alchemy (and its sequel, Clockwork Samurai) in a two-for-one deal that looked like a bargain - I've always been interested in reading steampunk which isn't just reworked Victorian London, so these books seemed to be ideal for me. They're both set in China, for starters, around the time of the Opium Wars and both the Chinese and their unwelcome visitors (that'd be mostly the British, but also others from the West, in case you're not familiar with the period) have steampunk-style technology.

 

The main character is Jin Soling, the oldest child of a disgraced engineer working for the Emperor who subsequently paid with his life for perceived failure to prevent the West from encroaching on China. Soling and what remains of her family are in semi-hiding in a small village, where Soling's mother is dependent on opium and Soling herself is struggling to feed them all. She has taken up medicine as a profession, but even this isn't enough to make ends meet and so she's forced to sell what few possessions they still have in the nearby town - it's during the latest expedition to do so that she's arrested and her family's history comes back with a bang. 

 

Although her father had been disgraced, his work is still being studied and Soling finds that she's thrown into the middle of a plan by the Crown Prince to use the technology her father was developing. This brings her into contact with people she had known as a child: the man she was due to marry before her father was executed, as well as others who had worked for her father. Soling's own reticence to speak her opinions (which is fairly understandable considering her now precarious position and what happened to her father) means that there's a putative love triangle out there, with Soling the centre of attention for both the dutiful former betrothed Chang-Wei and the more rogueish Lang.

 

Anyway, this is all very much secondary to lots of angsting about her family, a storyline about everyone getting stuck in the nearby fortified town while it's under attack from rebels who are digging tunnels beneath it, and various uses of steampunk ingenuity along the way. Gunpowder Alchemy was an entertaining enough story to keep me reading, but I have to admit I found Chang-Wei a bit too upright and noble for my liking, while Soling had her moments but was overall a little frustrating to root for. Yes, she's probably appropriate for the period and culture, but I found Soling a bit of a wet blanket and would have liked more backbone along the way.