CLOCKWORK SAMURAI

211 pages $2.99 on Kindle

Ninjas, Dragon Airships, Romance and Adventure, from the Forbidden City to Japan under isolation, a fun adventure yarn

Jeannie Lin is best known for her romance novels, historical romances set in Tang Dynasty China. I have not read those, but have now read the first two books in her Gunpowder Chronicles steampunk series set in the Opium Wars era in China in the mid-19th century. I enjoyed both, and look forward to seeing more books in the series, now that she has set up the world and her characters so well.

Clockwork Samurai picks up soon after Gunpowder Alchemy, with our heroes from Gunpowder Alchemy, Jin Soling and Chen Chang-wei, now at work in the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City, Soling as an Imperial physician and Chang-wei as a senior engineer in the Ministry of Engineering. An audacious plan to seek a Japanese alliance against the British, who are rotting China from within with opium, tainted and otherwise, is ordered into action by the new Emperor.  Soling and Chang-wei are dispatched to Japan, an island nation closed against all foreigners for over two centuries. Action, intrigue, reunions and shifting alliances ensue.

Ninjas! Clockwork Samurai! Dragon airships! And mechanical Chinese herb mixing machines and other delightful Asian-inflected steampunk elements enliven the mix. I don’t want to give the plot away except to notice that there is a great deal of tromping around in the Japanese countryside suffering rather frequent attacks by assassins in well-written bouts of action that reminds me oddly enough of the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy where Merry and Pippin as Team A and Frodo and Sam as Team B spend much of the book tramping here and there to get to various places under rather frequent attack by orcs and other disagreeables, an shortcoming remedied in the Two Towers film version by spending the film time on less tramping and one big hellacious siege battle. I kind of got to the end of the book still looking for the climactic “boss fight” after all the tramping. The author set up a lot, whether it be the danger of the tainted opium, the position of the Japanese Shogunate on foreign politics, the position of the Chinese empire, but that the story didn’t quite push any of these elements as far as they could have been pushed or get to resolution or payoff on any of them. I found this underdevelopment by a terrific writer a crime of omission in what is otherwise a great read.

For it is a great read, my quibbles aside, and head and shoulders above much else that is available in the steampunk genre world, well-written in graceful yet concrete prose. For Lin’s adventure yarn also brings in wonderful elements of romance in the slow-simmering and very Chinese romance brewing over two books between Soling and Chang-wei, the backdrop of the urgent and tumultuous struggle for survival between the great Far Eastern powers and the rising Western Powers that marked the mid-19th century, and a growing flock of well-drawn characters in what is fast-becoming an epic scale world. Lin’s characters are individual and unique, reflecting their Chinese status-conscious culture here, or their Japanese dedication to honor and duty there.

The romance element is strong, befitting Lin’s background in historical romance. While I do suspect Lin came up with more excuses for Soling and Chang-wei to be thrown together in private, with Chang-wei’s shirt off to reveal nicely muscled masculine flesh so Soling can play doctor on him, than were absolutely necessary for plot requirements, the occasional fiery chance touches and shivers and moments of snuggling were welcome and let the Western reader accustomed to more sexual action understand that these two are in to each other even if they spend most of their time stoically ignoring each other. Lin’s grasp of the period history and culture is strong and sure, and her tale provides a great introduction to the non-Asia expert on the period and place where she has set her story.

I look forward to seeing Soling and Chang-wei continue their romance and their careers under the capricious new Emperor, and hope they are able to forge the alliance with Japan that they seek with their new friends and…no, I shan’t give it away. Suffice it to say that the new allies and technologies they found in Japan set up many new exciting possibilities for the next installments in the Gunpowder Chronicles. I look forward to reading more from Jeannie Lin. I recommend the book to action-adventure fans, historical romance fans, steampunk fans looking for something outside Victorian England and the American Wild West and anyone who enjoys a well-written yarn.

GUNPOWDER ALCHEMY

Historical fantasy lightly flavored with essence of steampunk and a delicate romance

287 pages. $4.99 on Kindle

Historical romance novelist Jeannie Lin’s foray into steampunk, “Gunpowder Alchemy,” offers readers a rich cultural and historical feast along with adventure, restrained romance, dragon airships, pirates, rebels, imperial princes, revolutions and old-school conflicts over loyalty, duty and honor. Lin’s tale is intelligent, innovative, culturally authentic, engaging and well told.

First, a word about genre. “Gunpowder Alchemy” is steampunk, but not your usual steampunk fare set in England or the U.S. Wild West with feisty Victorian ladies running around in corsets pursuing adventures in dirigibles with their clockwork mechanical friends and their Babbage computers.

Instead, our story is set in 1850 China, during the turmoil of the Opium Wars, and our heroine is a fallen Manchurian aristocrat, living hidden in the middle of nowhere after her father, the Chief Engineer to the Son of Heaven, was executed for failing to fight off the overwhelming military forces of the West. Our heroine, to feed her little brother and opium-addicted mother, must venture into the big city to sell the disgraced family’s last possession of any value. Adventure ensues, set against a historically accurate portrayal of the times, a turbulent and violent chapter in China’s history as that sophisticated empire collided with the brash and militarily superior Western powers.

Some critics have complained that Lin’s story is not steampunk enough, to which I can only reply that they are missing the point of steampunk. The heart of steampunk–and here I refer to steampunk beyond its manifestation as literature or steampunk as a science fiction genre to the wider cultural steampunk movement of the last few years–revolves around its fascination with technology, whether it be in the steampunk Do-It-Yourself/Maker movement or the re-imagining of a better past seen in more mainstream steampunk stories. The whole story grapples with the moment in history when China had an existential need for the technology to fight off the foreign invaders, and deals with characters who for various motivations and in different ways, struggle with that overwhelming challenge using every skill of engineering and science at their disposal. Lin’s story is MORE than merely steampunk, in that it also offers an engaging and authentic experience of a culture and a time period unfamiliar to many Western readers. So to steampunk, add “historical fiction,” ‘historical fantasy,” “alternate history” and yes, Lin’s forte, “historical romance,“ to the other genres that could also be used to describe elements of this novel.

Lin’s characters are a product of her chosen period, geography and their class and station in a rigidly status-conscious culture, not modern yellow-faced white Anglo adventurers marching through historical sets. Lin’s grasp of the history and culture of that period in Chinese history is confident and authentic, and provides much of the pleasure in reading this tale. The romance thread is beautifully and delicately portrayed, with all the constraints of that time pressing down on the growing attraction between the lovers. To our coarser modern tastes, the lovers’ restraint may seem quaint or sweet, but I found it moving and real in its context. The devastation opium wrought on the Chinese people of that time is vividly portrayed in the opium-addicted mother of the heroine, as well as the ravaged and violent victims of a mysterious form of amped-up tainted opium (somewhat reminiscent of Cherie Priest’s zombie army, formed in a different way, so take that, steampunk-genre-doubters!) The cultural meaning, pride and suffering associated with the custom of foot-binding is touched upon as well, with a marvelous steampunk solution woven into an important plot point.

The world-building is meticulous, whether in its descriptions of a rural village or the bustling urban centers, both the Chinese and the foreign quarters. Technology is of the time, augmented occasionally with delightful steampunk inventions blended with, for example, traditional Chinese medicine methods. I’m a round-eyed pale waiguoren, but one armed with a degree in East Asian Studies and a smattering of Mandarin, and I truly enjoyed experiencing the history and culture Lin depicted so masterfully. Where she made linguistic or historical simplifications in support of drama and pacing (always the right choice!), she did so with intelligence while preserving the essential truth of the culture and history.

Finally, the writing and craft are smooth and well done. Lin’s writing is clean and spare, not ornate, with just enough detail to keep things concrete without slowing pacing. I have an old-fashioned preference for stories told in the third person point of view, but I found myself adapting quickly to the protagonist’s first person point of view as Lin unobtrusively engaged me in her story. I found myself questioning my own preferences as I enjoyed the immediacy of her first person POV.

Recommendation: for historical fiction fans interested in China, for sweet historical romance fans, and yes, for open-minded steampunk adventure fans willing to try something other than same-old Anglophile steampunk. Each of you will find a tale well-crafted, full of unique and interesting characters set in an unfamiliar and vividly real world. I’ve already downloaded the next book in the series, to see where Lin and her characters go next!

REVIEW: UNITED STATES OF JAPAN

Author: Peter Tieryas. This is Mr. Tieryas’s third novel, and is hotly anticipated by much of the science fiction press.

Genre: Science fiction alternate history

Length: 400 pages

Summary: Beniko Ishimura is a man with a tainted heritage, a tangle of conflicting loyalties to navigate and dangerous colleagues and companions. He’s a game censor in a dystopian totalitarian regime, charged with hunting down dissidents who reveal their disloyal behaviors and tendencies through their gameplay choices. Playing the part of a ladies man and a bit of a slacker, falling far behind in the promotions race, he needs to decide who he can trust and who he must fight in a shadowy world of secret police, yakuza and loyalty enforcers.

Set in a mind-bending version of the 1980s in Southern California, Beniko’s adventure navigates a world in which the Axis won World War II and divided the United States between them, with the Japanese ruling the West Coast and the Nazis the Eastern United States. Beniko’s parents were liberated from a Japanese internment camp only when the Emperor dropped a nuclear weapon on San Jose, wiping it from the map. Flashing forward to Beniko’s timeframe…When a subversive video game positing that the United States of American actually won the war starts appearing everywhere, he teams up with a single-minded Imperial agent to find and stamp out the source of the dissident game. Their journey takes them into the dark underbelly of the Japanese regime, revealing dangerous truths they must confront about their government, each other and themselves.

Review: I came to this book with high expectations, excited about the author, the high concept plot about an alternate history in which Japan won the war, the video game angle and the bold comparison to a favorite Philip K. Dick novel, The Man in the High Castle. (Note: I read United States of Japan two months before publication in ARC form, headed by a prominent note that final editing and formatting had not taken place. While there were a few distracting typos and formatting glitches in the version I read, the strengths and weaknesses of this work are clear enough in the current version that I will ignore editing details in this review on the assumption they will be cleaned up before final publication.)

Tieryas tells a tale of ambitious scope and scale and creates a vividly imaginative high tech world of porticals (super smart phones), mecha robots, viral weapons and insanely sadistic torture instruments. Never mind that video games were just crawling out of the primordial ooze of Pong and mobile phones were still the size of workboots in the real late 1980s. If the Japanese had in fact won the war, I am certain they would have gotten on with developing these gadgets much faster. Without revealing details, let us just stipulate that the author has a vivid imagination for technology, setting and cruelty. I will never look at ants the same way again.

Tieryas is a visual writer, big-screen ready, who takes the reader to each clearly delineated scene in memorable fashion, whether it be the seamy cyber-yakuza gangster hangout, the antiseptic torture chamber, the huge shiny shopping and gaming arcade or the super-sized mecha battleground. He’s also a solid story-teller, developing complex and well-motivated characters who pursue their agendas believably enough in the elaborately imagined world he has created. Even his smaller side characters have complete backstories and unique goals, all of which adds texture and color to his richly detailed world. He mixes a punk-colored, neon-lit Japanese social scene set in appropriately modern gender-equal host and hostess bars with details of Southern California settings twisted inside out, like an upmarket Compton, and Catalina Island, a sunswept destination for pleasure boats in our world, converted into a labor and torture camp in his dark vision.

It’s probably politically incorrect to notice such things in 2016, but I also admire Tieryas’s development of his female characters. Akiko, an intensely loyal and single-minded Imperial agent, charged with enforcing internal discipline and rooting out the disloyal, is a fully realized character with subtle and shifting motivations and goals. While she possesses, of course, all the overachiever fighter skills and gender-transcending attitude and courage of the modern Lara Croftian female superhero, she also has a rich inner life and very much plays out her own agenda rather than being a mere foil for Beniko. The early-discarded girlfriend, the red-headed/blonde/constantly shifting babe-alicious Tiffany is also interesting and intelligent with her own busy and complex existence and goals, even if her main early function appears to be cheerful sexpot companion. Without revealing details of her evolution, she turns out to be so much more. It’s a pleasure to find this level of development lavished on female characters in what one might expect to be a pretty male-dominated flat character robot gamer world. In fact, Beniko, the slacker and ladies man, comes off as somewhat underdeveloped and passive in the first half of the book, partly in comparison to the active and dynamic Akiko and Tiffany. Akiko more than holds her own as an equal protagonist throughout the story without ever lapsing into the trope of the love interest, an admirable choice.

I find much to recommend in United States of Japan: the high concept plot, richly detailed tech world, complex characters and a certain gritty, dark atmosphere that permeates every page. Tieryas also drives a fast pace, moving swiftly from action to discovery and forward, always forward, with dialogue alternating with his vivid visuals to keep the action moving.

However, I am forced to admit I did not enjoy the book as much as I had hoped. Aside from the minor distractions of the editing and formatting lapses, which I am ignoring, I found his writing style fell somewhere between annoying to downright distressing, jarring me out of immersion in his terrific world and hurling me into a state approaching rage at times. Great storyteller, lousy wordsmith. While 95%–no, 98%!– of his prose is straightforward, muscular, action-oriented and clean, nothing fancy but not bad, perfectly suited to his fast-paced storytelling and chosen genre, every now and then he reached for a literary flourish that drove me nuts, and not in a good way.

“Akiko was in a store that sold memories, [cool, I like this, wonder where you are going, but I’m in for the ride] a mishmash of tawdry emancipation bottled into faked vulnerability and fingernails from forgotten musicians grilled on kebabs of misplaced desire. [Huh? Lemme read that again…kebabs, really? Never mind, I’ll keep going…] If only she’d had better taste, she could have escaped the corpulence of discontent. [wha—? Okay, so it must be a typo thing. Keep going.] But no, her belly swelled [did I miss a mating scene somewhere?] and her finger nails turned into claws as her nose gushed latex paint.”

Hrm. I am left befuddled and speechless.

This sort of passage is a frozen fish smacked across the reader’s face in the midst of an otherwise thrilling ride. To be fair, it was a dream sequence. But still. It happened far too many times, and not just in dream sequences. He has a few other style tics, merely annoying and not rage inducing, like occasional oddball word choices that are not quite wrong but are fairly weird, lapses into passive voice, or occasions when he starts off a sentence with one subject, and sticks in a clause with an unrelated subject at the end. Distracting but not deadly. But the occasional patches of purple prose, the abstract metaphors and the use of $500 words where $5 words would do must go, or readers will rise up like the Americans and revolt.

The other main difficulty I experienced as a reader, beyond suffering from the occasional bouts of purple prose, was feeling alienated from Beniko and Akiko. I found myself struggling to stay connected to them or care what happened to them for much of the first half of the book because, let’s face it, these were tough people doing a tough job in a dark and dystopian world, and that sort of thing takes its toll. They cannot be Disney princesses cavorting with cute bunnies while bluebirds sing overhead. But it took me to 50% through the book before I had a spontaneous experience of caring for Akiko and feeling empathy for her position and fully 60% through before I had the same experience for Beniko.

By the end, Tieryas had won me over for both characters, and I do not want to spoil the experience for readers by explaining why, but I fear many readers will not persist far enough to reach the payoff. I would encourage readers to persist, but the purple prose problem, while minor in the grand scheme of things, exacerbates the character alienation problem because the readers begin to mistrust the author’s character decisions partly BECAUSE the prose is so annoying.

In the author’s defense, I note it is probably worth trusting an author who takes such care with names and fusses in the early chapters with the details of names. Beniko’s mother Ruth, which means “compassion, or empathy with the suffering,” and his father Ezekiel, named for the Old Testament prophet who foresaw both the fall and the redemption of Israel did not, could not have, accidentally given their one and only son a girl’s name without reason, a name that can mean “red child” or “child of goodness” if you continue the cultural mashup and use the Latin meaning of bene and the Japanese meaning of “child” for ko. These are all very strange names for Japanese Nissei; they were not chosen randomly by the author.

My struggle with this issue of alienation from the major characters leads me to one final observation. As I said above, I did not enjoy reading this book. This tale is dismal, distressing and paints an unrelieved portrait of the hypocrisy, the violence, the fear, the self-doubt, the mistrust and unending stress of living under a totalitarian regime.

My lack of enjoyment points not to a fault in the book, but rather to its strength AS a portrait of life under a totalitarian regime. My distress was the distress of the characters forced to live in such a dark world. The author created in me the reader the experience of living in his bleak world. His marketing people want to claim the mantle of spiritual successor to Philip K. Dick because of a superficial resemblance to another tale set in an alternate history where Japan has conquered the U.S. West Coast.

Fair enough, and probably one that will sell books, but I believe the more relevant comparison is to George Orwell’s 1984. I also disliked the experience of reading 1984 but have found it lingers in my memory and my thoughts long after my visceral recoil from the reading experience has faded. So too, I suspect, will United States of Japan linger with readers, for Tieryas has done his historical homework. Under the glitz and eye-candy of the grand mecha fights and cool gangster sets is a powerful portrait of life under the all-seeing eyes of the secret police in wartime Japan. His characters are not particularly Japanese, and his regime is not particularly Japanese, but his depiction of life under a totalitarian regime rings true, frighteningly true, and this truth, in the end, is where the value and merit in his tale lies.

Recommendation: Read it if you have a strong stomach for gritty dystopias, love a good mecha fight, sexy strong women, video games and late-blooming heroes. I’m giving this ambitious, memorable and flawed work four stars out of five, an approximation attempting to blend five stars for scope, theme, ambition and historical roots and good fast-paced page turning plot; four stars for having complex characters but maybe making them one notch too hard to care about early on and three stars for purple prose lapses.

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