Book 1 of the The Gunpowder Chronicles, an Opium War steampunk series
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, eliminating China's best chance of fighting back.
Since her father's execution eight years ago, Jin Soling has kept her family from falling apart. With her mother addicted to opium and her younger brother in danger of being sent off to the factories, Soling has no choice but to sell off the last of her father's possessions. Unwittingly, her actions bring her to the attention of the imperial court—the same court that betrayed her father.
The Crown Prince has launched a secret mission to bring together the remnants of the former Ministry of Science. To restore her family's name, Soling must track down the rebel alchemist who holds the key to powering the imperial fleet. Her only ally is a man she's just met—the engineer with a mysterious past who was once meant to be her husband…
I had the pleasure of seeing Jeannie Lin win her first award – RWA's Golden Heart – and watching her career as a published author blossom. She draws on her background in writing historical romance to pivot gracefully into steampunk. All that research comes in handy, no matter the genre! I know you'll enjoy the richly detailed settings and Jeannie's deft melding of Victorian sensibility with Chinese culture in Gunpowder Alchemy. – Anthea Sharp
"I was fascinated by the richly detailed setting — not just machinery, weapons and warfare, but culture, food, and dress — and the way that Victorian England was made strange by being narrated from Chinese characters' perspectives. Gunpowder Alchemy was a thrilling surprise in every way."– Jessica Tripler, Book Riot
"Readers will enjoy getting to know the customs and concerns in Chinese cities and villages of the time while rooting for a brave heroine and hero in this highly readable and distinctive novel."– Library Journal
Qing Dynasty China, 1842 a.d.
The Emperor waited on his golden throne.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony was a place of grand ceremony and state occasion, too ostentatious for an audience of one, yet Chief Engineer Jin found himself alone before the Son of Heaven. In accordance, he had worn his best court attire: a silk robe embroidered with the bordered red banner of his ancestral line.
The Forbidden City was closed at night to all but the royal family and the Emperor's closest attendants: the palace eunuchs, the imperial guard, the harem of concubines and consorts. Despite the ordinance, Jin Zhi-fu had been summoned in this late hour to appear before his sovereign.
Jin lowered himself to his knees and placed both hands before him, pressing his forehead to the tiled floor once, then again. Three times three. Nine times for the proper kowtow. When he was done, he waited with his head lowered, staring at his hands laid flat on the ground before him. His left arm from the elbow down was fashioned from steel bones and copper muscle. Gold-tipped acupuncture needles connected the contraption to his nerve endings, allowing metal to take the place of what was once flesh. A small price to pay in service to the empire.
He was not allowed to rise or speak until addressed directly. The silence went on, and his heartbeat grew louder in the absence of sound, pounding with great force until the cadence of it filled his ears.
The Emperor's voice rang through the assembly hall like a clap of thunder. "Do we not outnumber the foreign ships?"
"Yes. Imperial Majesty."
"A hundred men for their ten."
Jin closed his eyes and breathed slowly. He counted each throb within his chest. Each one had become painfully significant. It was said the heart could continue pulsing for a full minute even once the soul had fled.
"Why was the Western fleet not destroyed?" the Emperor demanded.
The imperial commissioner had guaranteed success. Each of the senior ministers had assured the same, as well as the grand admirals of the imperial navy. Yet here he was, the humble chief engineer, to deliver failure.
"The cannons held Wusong for days." Jin tried to project as clearly as he could with his head bowed. "But the Western gunships—"
The Emperor cut him off with an impatient noise. He didn't want an explanation, and from that moment, Jin knew he had only been summoned for one reason.
The Ministry of Engineering had heard rumors of powerful weapons from the West. His men had worked to secure the ports. They had outfitted the forts with cannons and an arsenal of gunpowder and explosives. The nautical division had developed superior sails so the war junks could maneuver without equal through wind and water.
, or England as the foreigners called their land, had countered with something his engineers had never seen before. Iron-clad devil ships had roared into the harbor to tear through the war junks as if they were made of paper. The Middle Kingdom had been defeated by a fleet of steam and iron.
The Son of Heaven was perfect and infallible. If the empire had failed, then someone else, someone mortal and imperfect, was to blame.
The chief engineer could protest his innocence. He could blame the greater men who had come before him who had underestimated the English threat, but he, too, had remained silent for the sake of pride. A thousand years of pride. He had allowed the imperial navy to sail against the superior Western fleet to be destroyed and, even worse, humiliated.
"The failure lies with this unworthy servant," Jin conceded.
A sound of rage bubbled from the Emperor's throat. "Remove this man from the Emperor's sight."
The Forbidden Guard appeared from the recesses of the hall to take him. Jin's mechanical arm froze as their rough grip displaced the control needles. They dragged him from the hall with his feet scraping helplessly over the tile.
Perhaps his death would be enough. The engineers who served him could be spared. And his family . . . He prayed his family would remain unharmed. His wife had watched him with haunted eyes through their final embrace. Soling, his ten-year-old daughter, had curled her slender fingers tight over his as she'd walked with him to the front gate.
She was growing so tall now. He'd somehow missed that part, with the war with the foreigners taking up all his time. He would only be able to watch over her now in spirit.
Jin Zhi-fu emerged from the hall to the towering shapes of the Forbidden City and the stark night sky above. He was nothing more than dead weight now, a burden, a thing as the sentinels pulled him further into the hidden depths. His body grew slack and his knees refused to hold his weight.
He was afraid to die after all.
The war was already over, though no formal surrender had yet been issued. Jin had known it since Canton fell a year earlier. More strongholds followed: Tinghai, Ningpo, Wusong, Shanghai. A slow death sentence of a thousand cuts, slice after relentless slice. It was ill omen to speak of failure, so no one had said anything. They had all of them remained so very quiet.
Qing Dynasty China, 1850 A.D.—Eight years later
I felt heat rising up the back of my neck as I walked past the center of the market area. Past all the places where any respectable young woman would be found. Everyone knew what lay at the end of the alleyway. We liked to think that because it was at the edge of our village, that dark little room was hidden. A secret thing. If no one spoke of it, it didn't exist.
By the same rule, everyone knew there was only one reason anyone went out there.
Though there were no eyes on me, I could feel them all the same. Linhua was small enough that there were no secrets. It was small enough that people didn't even pretend not to know.
The back door was buried deep at the end of the lane. As far as I knew, no one ever used the front entrance. I knocked twice and stepped back.After a pause, the door slid open, the corner grating against the dirt floor. The man who stood behind it gave me a wide grin. "Ah, Miss Jin Soling."
A sickly sweet smell wafted into the alleyway. Though faint, the pungent floral notes were unmistakable. Our village wasn't large enough to have a grain store, yet we had an opium den.
"Shang," I greeted.
Cui Shang was thin, long in the face. I knew he was ten years older than me and his father was a widower. Once, a generation before, their family had worked a plot of farmland, but now the Cui family had no other trade besides opium.
"Are you here to try a pipe with me, Miss Jin? It will take away all your burdens; remove that worry line always hanging over your brow. You might even be pretty without it."
I held out my palm to display the two copper coins, half of my earnings from Physician Lo that day.
"I have this week's payment."
"That's not enough," he said.
"This is how much it always costs."
Shang scratched the side of his neck with one bony finger. "Don't you know? The runners have raised their prices. News is there was a fire in the docks in Canton. Several large shipments of opium were destroyed."
"I haven't heard anything of it."
He shrugged. "It's the truth."
I kept my face a mask. He was trying to play me like an old fishwife in the market. "This is all you'll receive."
Shang tried to stare me down, his lip curling into a scowl. Straightening my shoulders, I stared right back even though my pulse was racing. I was taller than most of the other girls in the village, but at my full height he was still half a head taller. Though constant opium use left him gaunt in appearance, he was still stronger than me.
I had my needle gun in my pocket, a spring-loaded weapon I kept with me when I had to travel on the lonely roads that surrounded the village to tend to patients. If Shang tried anything, all it would take was a single dart in his neck or torso to immobilize him, but I couldn't draw with him so close.
With a shrug, he disappeared into the den while I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. It had been a long day. Old Lo had sent me far out to the edge of the rice fields for the monthly visit to farming huts. Now it was late and my family would be holding our evening meal to wait for me.
Ten minutes passed by and he had not yet reappeared. I loathed to go inside, but I was prepared to do so when he finally emerged.
"I had to give you a smaller amount," he announced with even less of an attempt at politeness than before. "You can't expect any special treatment, acting so superior all the time."
Without argument, I held out the cash, which he took after thrusting the packet into my hand. Inside was a pressed cake of black opium. I slipped it into the pocket of my jacket and didn't bother to say farewell before turning to leave.
He spat on the ground behind me. My face burned at the insult, but I didn't stop. I hated knowing that in a week I would be back.