I eagerly snatched up each new release when she set her romances and romantic suspenses in the Tang Dynasty so it was with an absurd amount of delight that I picked up Jeannie Lin’s first Steampunk story set during China’s Qing Dynasty of the 1840s. Fantastical engineering and scientific inventions and the men that created them, mysterious opium crazes, rebellion, government plots, foreign invaders, and an adventure of a lifetime for young Jin Soling when she sets out to help her destitute family. Gasps, signs, nailbiting moments and a little ah how sweet thrown in for good measure.
The story begins on an ominous, sad note as a family’s life is sent into upheaval by the great Emperor looking to find a scapegoat for China losing the war against the better equipped foreign invader who now occupies one of their largest coastal cities and is becoming rich in the trade of Chinese resources and the peddling of opium. Soling, her little brother, her opium-addicted mother and one faithful family servant have left Peking with a disgraced family name after her father was put to death and most of his scientific work confiscated or destroyed. Now they live in a humble little village where they get by on selling her father’s few remaining possessions and Soling’s apprenticeship to a physician. Unfortunately, they have run low again and it’s time to sell the last of her father’s things- the mysterious puzzle box.
Soling journeys to the large city to sell the puzzle box and earn enough money to get by for a time. Her movements through the city do not go undetected and she is taken up by a government official keen to use her for his own ends. The stakes are high as China prepares to fight off the foreign invaders and the rebels from within. Soling’s father was mentor and master to some brilliant minds and now new leadership realizes just what the old regime’s blunders cost them. The remaining men still living and the knowledge they possess are considered valuable, but some are too wily to come anywhere near the government ever again so Soling strikes a deal with those who would use her as bait. She will help if the prince will restore her family.
This decision leads her on a series of further adventures that broaden her world, expose her to people with opposing stakes in the chess board that is China and also leads her to a surprising friend and something more who joins her on her dangerous journey that may or may not lead her back to her family and safety.
So, yes, this was brilliant. This first installment of the series set up a huge front porch when it came to getting the setting, characters, and situation all explained and moving along. It could have felt heavy and dragging because of all that intricate stuff, but it didn’t. I found it fascinating. There is a lot of history and customs of the time, but the steampunk gadgetry was also present. There were so many components to this story, but they all managed to balance out. History, steampunk, suspense, plot and character development all took turns in the spotlight.
Probably the strongest pieces were the characters and their story all told through Soling’s point of view. She was a dutiful, hard working and sheltered young woman when she started out, but she grew into so much more as the story progressed. She had decided opinions, but she was also open to listening and learning from others. She is surrounded by ambiguous people who all have their own agendas so that she doesn’t know who to trust. I enjoyed that part of the story the most. There is mystery to it. I could sense that this series is going to produce some real surprises after getting the reader complacent and sure they know what is going on. I am all aquiver to follow up on the things left dangling at the end of this one.
This story wraps up on a good spot, but also leaves things wide open for what is to come both with the overall series arc, Soling’s personal arc and the relationship arcs. All in all, it was abso-fab and I can heartily recommend it to a wide range of readers including Steampunk, Historical Fiction and Romance lovers.
My thanks to Penguin Group and Net Galley for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
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