Tales from the Gunpowder Chronicles

by Jeannie Lin
November 12, 2019 · Jeannie Lin
Historical: OtherNovellaRomanceScience Fiction/FantasySteampunk

I’ve been in a reading rut lately. It’s the worst feeling in the world, and my solution has been to try novellas instead. They’re less intimidating than full-length books: it’s an hour of my time instead of four, I don’t feel like I’ve wasted time if I hate the book, I don’t experience guilt if I DNF, etc. The list goes on and on.

When Jeannie Lin released an anthology set in her 19th century Chinese steampunk series, I was ecstatic. Lin is one of the brightest stars of historical romance, and I strongly believe that The Jade Temptress is a perfect book. Plus, it’s an anthology with three novellas! I could devour the stories in bite-sized chunks and conquer my reading rut.

The good news is that I read the entire anthology and mostly enjoyed myself. The bad news is that I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to. I may be my biggest enemy when setting ridiculously high expectations. Still, Tales from the Gunpowder Chronicles continues crafting excellent steampunk worldbuilding from the first two installments of the series. Of the three stories, the first two (Big Trouble in Old Shanghai and The Island of the Opium-Eaters) contain minor flirting but are not romances. Love in the Time of Engines, however, is a steampunk romance and the longest (approximately 60% of the anthology).

If you’re already a fan of The Gunpowder Chronicles, then you should pick this anthology up because it features intriguing secondary characters from the main series. If you haven’t tried the series, this anthology may be a good starting point to dip your toes into the steampunk setting. If you’re interested in the setting but want a longer story, then I recommend trying Gunpowder Alchemy instead (Carrie’s excellent A- review will tell you everything you need to know!).

Big Trouble in Old Shanghai (approximately 20% of the anthology) is a gripping short novella set during a rebellion, and I give it a B.

The signs are there. Gangs roaming the streets, the very earth shaking beneath their feet. Ming-fen could tell something was coming to Old Shanghai, but she didn’t know exactly what until the city erupted in fiery rebellion — with her brother caught on the wrong side. With the streets in turmoil, Ming-fen must rely on her fighting skills and a blue-eyed foreign devil to survive the day, and perhaps keep an already broken city from all-out civil war.

Big Trouble in Old Shanghai is a perfect snapshot as to why I love this series so much. Sarcastic heroines with expert weaponry skills and street smarts that save the day! Thrilling action sequences that never end the way a reader anticipates! Nuanced political debates and rebellion set in the backdrop of the Opium Wars! Flirting between people who should be enemies but are forced to team up under extenuating circumstances! Have I used enough exclamation points to get you excited, or do I need to keep going?!

Honestly, I was won over the second I realized that the male MC was named Dean Burton (an allusion to Jack Burton from the movie Big Trouble in Little China). This short novella is so much dang fun. I’m hesitant to reveal any more of the plot already stated in the blurb; experiencing the journey is half the pleasure. It’s an exhilarating adventure where the protagonists smuggle a “package” amidst gang rebellion and attempted coups. While short, Big Trouble in Old Shanghai is satisfying for a self-contained story. I wish the relationship between Ming-fen and her brother was explored a little more, but length constraints make that impossible. I hope that we’ll get a book about Ming-fen and Dean one day because their chemistry is off-the-charts.

The Island of the Opium-Eaters (approximately 20% of the anthology) is a frightening short novella set in an island crawling with unknown terrors, and I give it a B-.

Sagara Satomi hasn’t set foot on land since she was exiled from Nippon and cast adrift upon a ship owned by a notorious Chinese rebel. Rogue alchemist, Yang Hanzhu has spent years chasing dark rumors, plotting a course toward an unmarked island with a mysterious past. Will they uncover the island’s secrets? Or be buried there along with them?

I can’t believe that I liked something that creeped the hell out of me. Me, the person who will leave the room if friends are watching a horror movie. Me, the person who can usually only tolerate fictional ghosts if they’re friendly. Me, the person who once screamed so loudly in a haunted house that I caused a minor kerfuffle that ended with four people on the floor.

I’m a scaredy-cat, and I’m proud of it. So if I say that this is frightening, it’s probably not that frightening because I managed to finish it. I don’t want to spoil the island’s secrets, but I will put out a content warning for cannibalism (nothing explicit, just that it exists). The author’s note describes this novella as an “entry into the ‘mysterious island’ genre of pulp fiction,” and I’d endorse that description.

Mysterious horrors aside, I loved the heroine Satomi. After leaving her home of Nippon (Japan), she’s at sea — both literally and figuratively — and uncertain of her future. Those who leave her homeland aren’t permitted to return, and she’s experiencing sadness and nostalgia for home. It doesn’t help that she’s trapped with a Mad Scientist determined to find a cure for opium addiction. Still, she’s competent AF and smart enough to save the day (and the Mad Scientist) when she’s forced to confront the island’s terrors. My complaint is that Hanzhu’s motivations seemed opaque at times, and I wish we had more insight into his head.

Like in the previous novella, the chemistry between the MCs is off-the-charts. The Island of the Opium-Eaters is not a romance, but there is a faintest possibility of something in the future. I would definitely read a full-length novel about Satomi and Hanzhu, and I hope that we get their romantic HEA one day.

Love in the Time of Engines (approximately 60% of the anthology) is impossible to grade. As a standalone (e.g., the reader has never read Gunpowder Alchemy), it’s brilliant and deserves to be graded in the A range. Unfortunately, I have read Gunpowder Alchemy and the knowledge of future events dampened my enjoyment considerably. I am at a complete loss on how to grade this, but ultimately decided on a C.

Amidst rumors the West has developed powerful steam engines, the Ministry of Science seeks to recruit new talent. Golden boy Jin Zhi-fu meets mathematics prodigy Shi Anlei while attending the Academy, but doesn’t realize his new friend is a woman disguised as a man. It’s the only way she’d be allowed to take the imperial examination.

When Anlei’s hidden identity is discovered, Zhi-fu and Anlei are forced into a test more difficult than the exam — one that challenges the limits of duty, friendship, and love.

ARGH. I want an infinite black hole to scream into so I don’t subject my agony to innocent bystanders. This novella brought me so much misery and happiness at the same time. Let me begin with the positives:

  • Heroine Disguised As A Man is a trope that I will love forever, mostly because the heroines exert so much agency and are willing to do anything to gain their heart’s desires. In this case, Anlei wants an education and the imperial examination (as well as any scholarly appointment) is barred from women. Not even the knowledge that most people fail — including next-door neighbor Zhi-fu who has failed many times — is going to stop her. It is truly inspiring to see her continuously fight against the patriarchy and dedicate her life to mathematics.
  • Anlei is so freaking clever about her disguise. Look at this!

She’d even created a small device with a pump that could be hidden in her palm. If she ever had to “relieve” herself, she could use it to dispense a stream of yellowed water from an artificial bladder strapped beneath her clothes.

  • It’s brilliant, and the mechanics of her disguise are crucial to the story. Several variations of this trope often brush over the details and expect you to believe that the disguise is fool-proof. Here, even comprehensive planning isn’t enough to secure secrets forever. I don’t love infinite deception between the MCs. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here and the aftermath of the reveal is so good.
  • Speaking of tropes I love: I’m a sucker for “hopeful Hufflepuff/Ravenclaw country bumpkin with optimism radiating from the pores” + “cynical Slytherin/Ravenclaw city-slicker who’s been around the block and is resigned to living life just to survive it.” The best part is that the Hufflepuff/Ravenclaw heroine imbues her optimism into the hero’s mindset. Anlei never becomes cynical. Never, even when there are several opportunities to drag her down.
  • Forced proximity! Anlei can’t afford all the instruction materials. What kind of monster would Zhi-fu be if he doesn’t let Anlei borrow his books and study in his room? Spoiler Alert: he’s not a monster. Anlei’s room doesn’t have heat and she has to move in next door temporarily during a chilly spell. Naturally Zhi-fu shares the bed out of hospitality. There are no thoughts other than platonic gratefulness. Nope, not at all.

I can sing more praises, but I’ll stop now because it’s bumming me out. If I had read Love in the Time of Engines as a standalone, it would be among the top tier of novellas that I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, I can’t read in a vacuum or divorce my emotions from external sources.

The problem is that I’ve read Gunpowder Alchemy, a romantic steampunk novel that features the heroine Jin Soling. Set decades after Love in the Time of Engines, Jin Soling is the daughter of Anlei and Zhi-fu. In the first few chapters of the book, it is revealed that

Click for details of an unhappy future
1) Zhi-fu is dead after being blamed for the Western invasion of China and 2) Anlei is suffering from a horrible opium addiction.

Things are, to put it mildly, in dire straits.

It is perhaps unfair to demand HEAs in a series that isn’t Genre Romance, but Love in the Time of Engines is a novella with a central romantic arc! It was excruciating watching Anlei and Zhi-fu gain their “HEA” when I knew the future would hold nothing but death and misery.

The entire time, I was swooning over what a cute couple they were while simultaneously weeping that it wouldn’t last. Sometimes extreme emotions don’t make for a pleasant reading experience. I should’ve been happy when the novella ended on a romantic note, but I wasn’t. I was sad that this wonderful couple would be torn apart in a few decades and that Anlei would suffer so greatly with her opium addiction. I don’t like being sad when I read romance, and this made me unable to fully appreciate the otherwise brilliant aspects of Love in the Time of Engines.

So, do I recommend this? Yes and no. If you’re a fan of the series and you have a high tolerance for sad endings in the distant future, go ahead and read Love in the Time of Engines. It’s worth reading, and I can’t praise the execution enough. If you can’t handle the creeping melancholy without it negatively affecting your reading experience, then maybe give this one a pass. I don’t regret reading Love in the Time of Engines, but I’m going to be a little sad for a while. This is impossible to grade, but I’m going with C.

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