SFRB Recommends #50: Gunpowder Alchemy by Jeannie Lin #steampunk
In 1842, the gunpowder might of China’s Qing Dynasty fell to Britain’s steam engines. Furious, the Emperor ordered the death of his engineers—and killed China’s best chance of fighting back…
Since her father’s execution eight years ago, Jin Soling kept her family from falling into poverty. But her meager savings are running out, leaving her with no choice but to sell the last of her father’s possessions—her last memento of him.
Only, while attempting to find a buyer, Soling is caught and brought before the Crown Prince. Unlike his father, the Emperor, the Prince knows that the only chance of expelling the English invaders is to once again unite China’s cleverest minds to create fantastic weapons. He also realizes that Soling is the one person who could convince her father’s former allies—many who have turned rebel—to once again work for the Empire. He promises to restore her family name if she’ll help him in his cause.
But after the betrayal of her family all those years ago, Soling is unsure if she can trust anyone in the Forbidden City—even if her heart is longing to believe in the engineer with a hidden past who was once meant to be her husband…
Lin presents a non-traditional steampunk perspective in Gunpowder Alchemy: that of an empire in decline. British imperialism had adverse effects on the already-troubled Chinese. The world is a fascinating mix of historical accuracy (Crown Prince Yizhu, Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, Soling gets away with being of good birth but having unbound feet only because she is Manchu) with floating ships and clockwork technology.
The story presents many questions about conflicting loyalties and what it means to be a person of virtue: Soling tries to be a good daughter, serve the Emperor, and serve her country at the same time. Soling's adventures will continue, so there's no happily-ever-after here, but she and Chang-wei slowly build the beginnings of a relationship in a convincing fashion.