With the oil lamp in hand, I went to the storeroom beside the kitchen. The space was kept desolately clean with the bins and jars mostly empty. Even the mice sought better prospects. The basket in the corner held a layer of rice that was no more than a finger deep. The entire province was feeling the aftermath of a poor growing season.
The wooden panel in the back of the storeroom creaked as I pried it open. I wedged my arm through the opening and rummaged around until my fingers wrapped around a solid object. Over the last years, we had gradually sold and bartered away our family treasures except for the few trinkets kept hidden here. I pulled out a bundle wrapped in green silk. Brushing away the dust, I untied the cloth. The light from the lamp flickered across the polished steel inside. Even after all this time, it remained untarnished.
A puzzle box, my father had called it. The cube was the size of a large grapefruit and appeared to be made of several panels all welded perfectly together. I rotated it in my hands, running my fingertips over the surface. On first glance, the sides appeared uniform, but as I turned it, the light reflected off to reveal a geometric pattern of shaded squares and diamonds. Yet the metal was smooth to the touch and seamless to the eye. Only the right combination would open it.
Jin Soling is the de facto head of her household, taking responsibility ever since her father was executed and her mother, disgraced, succumbed to opium addiction. So far, she’s provided for her family by working as an apprentice physician; it’s hardly a respectable trade for a woman but she’s good at it, and her boss is kind. But business is slow and she’s been gradually selling off their few possessions. In desperation, she travels to the nearby town of Changsha to sell the beautiful puzzle box she inherited from her father. An imperial engineer before his death, the effects left by Jin senior are inventive and unusual, and Soling hopes she might raise enough to keep her mother from painful withdrawal and her brother well-fed, at least for a little longer.
But what should be a quick two-day trip turns into a longer journey when Soling is waylaid by government officials hoping to use her presence to draw one of her father’s old colleagues out of hiding. The minister in charge of the operation, Chen Chang-wei, once worked for Soling’s father, and was betrothed to her when she was a child. Seeing him again brings back memories of her old life in Peking, and thoughts of what might have been that she’d prefer to avoid, but despite their awkward history she can’t help trusting him when he assures her that he won’t allow her to come to harm. Uncle Yang, when Soling manages to find him, makes a similar vow. Unfortunately, whatever their intentions, that’s a promise neither man is necessarily in a position to keep: foreign influence is gradually creeping into the port cities, and rebellion is brewing in the Chinese countryside.
Gunpowder Alchemy is a fun, light steampunk adventure firmly grounded in imperial China. The setting is obviously well-researched: the opium trade plays a pivotal role, and questions of filial piety and social duty abound. Soling’s family has social connections straddling the worlds of peasants and wealthy bureaucrats alike, giving insight into the complex social structures. The Chinese flavour also seeps through into the steampunk elements, from the automated noodle carts to the acupuncture-powered artificial limb that Soling’s father manufactured for himself. Although the main plot is resolved within these pages, there are a lot of loose threads left hanging at the end of the novel, giving a few clues as to what we might expect in future books. Acupuncture-punk is definitely a sub-genre with scope for some interesting developments, and there are hints of bio-alchemy just waiting to be explored.
Soling begins as a cautious young woman, trying her best to remain demure and proper despite her family’s loss of respectability. Through the course of the novel she grows into a formidable scientist, more than able to exercise her wit and ingenuity to serve her own ends — or those of whomever she chooses to side with. And that is not an easy decision: due to the way her father was made a scapegoat, she struggles to feel true loyalty to the Emperor, yet she has no wish to join the rebels. Chang-wei, once her father’s protegé, is sincere in his devotion to the imperial cause, and through their developing relationship he challenges Soling to consider her position with logic as well as emotion. Ultimately, in true Confucian style, it is her unwavering devotion to her family that guides her at every turn.
Gunpowder Alchemy is the first foray into steampunk from acclaimed historical romance author Jeannie Lin.