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.


Madness and Mayhem: a droll and entertaining start to a steampunk fantasy series

210 pages, $2.99 on Kindle, steampunk fantasy

James Devo’s debut steampunk fantasy “Blood Red” is a meticulous marvel of madness. I loved it. I’ll tell you why, of course, for this is a review, not a fan girl rant, but it’s the sort of fun, fantastic, quirky read one could work up a good fan girl rant about. I received a free review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and I am so very lucky that I did.

I like steampunk, I like fantasy and I like clever British humo[u]r. So, yes, I admit I was pre-disposed to enjoy this book for genre reasons, for it delivered all three in spades.

The steampunk was lightly done, found mostly in the vaguely Victorian/Edwardian speech and costumes of the characters, settings and the use of steampunk mechanical devices to overcome magical devices. The fantasy was yes, I must use the word, fantastic. Devo developed an intricate and yet stunningly simple magic system, of green, red and blue Wonder, magical substances manipulated by hyperphysicists, of course. For bonus points he developed a fantasy world with layers of backstory and varied settings discovered in pleasing droplets as our heroes and villains pursued their various and often nefarious ends. I finished the book a few days ago, and yet beautiful and terrifying visuals still linger in my brain, from hordes of onrushing Humps, masked Immolators, a Cathedral somehow leaning down and then springing back up, a crystalized world, and a fine library where cognac and fine port are served to gentlemen and pushy adventurous ladies on luxurious leather chairs. I wish I could forget Mandrell’s final state, but alas, he haunts me still.

Best of all was Devo’s humor and skill at sketching characters. Within these pages, look forward to lots of droll character development, very British, dry and funny as hell, from the unfortunate aristocrat Mandrell to the equally/less/more unfortunate warrior Tork, depending on how permanent you prefer your death. Let us not overlook the relentless and insatiable Laurel, the noble and tragic Hilt and all the others of this double ensemble crazy cast of characters. I cannot pretend I was able to keep straight all the characters, but as a rough guide for readers, there’s a bunch of good-ish guys and gals and a second bunch of bad-ish guys and gals, and both groups, with occasional team-switching and double-crossing, are in competitive pursuit of this book’s McGuffin, a Gargoyle key, which is eventually obtained and then in the second half of the book, put to use to reach somewhere previously unreachable, with momentous outcomes in the balance.

I loved the voice and writing. It was just right for the genre, mood and pace of this story, with little bon-bons of delicious humor embedded in what could have been the most prosaic and dull of moments. Devo somehow managed to maintain a rather frenetic feel in the pacing as we rush from battle to siege to oasis to battles anew while still slowing down for bite-sized morsels of back story and character sketching and relationship development that are the delight of this book. The story was rather fractal in nature, if I can use the word that way, in that the big over-arching plot was there, writ large (“Find the key. Use the key. Enjoy the consequences”) but along the way we had many mini-plots and mini-situations unspooling and allowing for more humor, depth and complexity. Don’t for a moment trust the author’s summary guide to characters and terms at the end of the book. It is half-truths, lies and exaggerations, mostly serving as a lame excuse for more humor. Watch the chapter headings carefully, to remind yourself where and when you are, for it can get overwhelming and you could easily get lost without a map and timepiece. That way you will not miss the freeway turnoff to the sad tale of Maisy, one of these fractal side-tales that, I kid you not, brought me to tears at the noble sacrifices made. It was an echo of every great soldierly sacrifice made on behalf of hapless civilians, up to and including Aragorn riding out against the horde when the keep has fallen to give the civilians time to escape.

On craft and presentation, I liked the layout and found the book quite well edited and clean. I am usually quite harsh about typos, and oddly enough the author seems to have misplaced some periods here and there, but spells perfectly and, other than the missing periods, punctuates well. The Humps must have made off with the missing periods, or the Trade stole them to swap for blue Wonder.

Recommendation: Ordinarily I would knock off a star for such craft sins, but I genuinely enjoyed the ride so much I could not bring myself to do it, as my personal enjoyment level was a six on a five point scale. Five stars, for wit, humor, world-building, pacing, wordsmithing, superb and memorable characters and a series I plan to read in full as a paying customer. Highly recommended for fantasy and steampunk fans looking for a new series, as well as anyone fond of British humor. Not recommended for stiffs who take everything too seriously, as they will find it appalling. Not for young and innocent readers, although I believe they would greatly enjoy the originality, creativity, creatures and humor of this world, as children enjoy William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” although it was written for adults. Perhaps parents could read aloud to their children and edit Mandrell’s difficulties on the fly to something more family-friendly.


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!


Blood Ties: Book 1 of the Blood War Chronicles

Author: Quincy J. Allen

Length: 276 pages

Genre: As the author puts it, a Western Steampunk Epic Fantasy. As this reviewer elaborates, a genre-blending mashup of Fantasy, Paranormal, Steampunk and Western.

Summary: Half-clockwork gunslinger Jake Lasater and his blue-eyed mulatto riding partner Cole McJunkins storm through a clockwork Weird Wild West battling werewolves, Chinese Tongs, crazed European soldiers and a deadly clockwork mercenary called Ghiss aided by a talented horse with a mighty kick named Lumpy, a beautiful Chinese tinker magician named Qi and his fast-on-her-feet ward Skeeter. Oh, and in the mix there’s a savvy mad emperor and sexy mysterious noblewoman in need of assistance as well.

Set in a vaguely post-Civil War American West, Jake’s adventure begins, after a few preliminary poker games, gunfights and assassination attempts, when he receives a telegram from Qi asking for his help on a job in San Francisco. San Francisco, where the Chinese Tongs who tried to kill him are headquartered. But does our hero turn down an opportunity to head straight for danger? Of course not! “Well, son, lemme tell ya…when a lady like Qi Lau Xing sends you an urgent telegram asking for help, you pretty much get off your tail and lend a hand. You’ll understand better when your suspenders are a little further from the ground.” Without spoiling the rest of the story, let it be said that mayhem and swashbuckling ensue, introducing a vibrant and well-drawn world, peopled with vivid characters and setting the stage for epic adventures to come in later stories, as this one rollicks to a cliffhanger ending.

Review: I enjoyed this book, straight up. Definitely a genre-blender, with steampunk showing up in airships, half-clockwork repaired veterans, green goggles and top hats everywhere, paranormal touches in the occasional werewolf, magicians and enchanted guns and prosthetics, and old school Western appearing in beautifully detailed Old West scenes sent ever so slightly askew by all the madness, like calculating whether your mechanical arm can draw faster than his when the poker game goes awry. If you are a genre purist, prepare to be appalled. If you can roll with author Quincy J. Allen’s mad mix, prepare to be enthralled as he builds a beautifully detailed, creative and markedly visual world.

Why did I enjoy it? Pace. Characters. World-building. Writing.

The dominant pace is breakneck page-turning madness, as we race from one shoot ‘em up to the next, with major battle scenes every other chapter or so, lovingly detailed in Wild West meets Steampunk tropes. But this skilled author knows when to slow the dance down and savor a moment, for high stakes poker games, encounters with lovely ladies or moving moments with Jake and his ward Skeeter. It’s a fast read, with snappy dialogue driving the action.

Author Allen’s characters are beautifully detailed, nuanced and vividly memorable. Our hero Jake is noble and good, in spite of the tough hand he’s been dealt, and skilled at vanquishing bad guys, but only the ones who earn it by making life hard for others. Not a bad philosophy. Cole McJunkins is loyal, quick-thinking and equally skilled at bad-guy vanquishing, and accepts his friend’s despised “machiner” half-clockwork nature as generously as his friend accepts his mulatto skin in a racist time. Skeeter is a fun character, a rebellious but fabulously skilled and street-savvy teenager who, guess what, breaks rules but is grown up enough to handle the consequences. From what I’ve seen so far of this author, I would guess Skeeter has bigger roles to play in future episodes of this epic adventure. Then there is the alluring Qi, magician and tinker, too busy with her own life and missions to take up as our hero’s girlfriend. I’ll leave it to readers to discover on their own Ghiss, mad Emperor Norton and the European lady in need of assistance, not to mention Grandfather Chung, just to mention the more important ones. But what’s great about this writer is even the one-off small characters carve out their own moment, like Marshal Billie Sisty—female, someone who could “speak softly and still know how to work a leg iron when the situation required it”—who had to reprimand Jake for shooting within city limits, although she did allow that he “did the wrong thing for the right reason…or is it the right thing for the wrong reason.”

On world-building, maybe I’m partial because I am from Colorado like the author, and he obviously loves Colorado and its colorful Old West heritage and uses that knowledge masterfully to create a firm foundation for the crazy world he goes on to build. From an overnight stay in the Horace Tabor House to quaffing a brew at the Colorado Brewery, Allen knows and loves the real Colorado, even as he covers it up with steampunks and werewolves and half-clockwork villains and heroes. He’s a visual writer, lovingly detailing the gadgets and gehaws, but never slowing the action down to do so. As mentioned above, he proudly refuses to color between the genre lines, or pick a genre for that matter, so buckle up for a few chapters as you rollercoaster from Old West to steampunk to paranormal, but trust that you will know and understand the rules of his mad world and they will eventually make sense. This is probably not a good book for someone who likes their reality real or objects to enchanted mechanical arms, but it’s a great book for someone who is delighted by creative surprises every few paragraphs.

And the writing. It is fine, damn fine. Writing in my mind is five things: the plot, the characters, the world-building, the prose and the quality of the editing. The dull stuff first—editing. I won’t suffer bad grammar or typos. I found one skinny little typo, which is miraculous in a newly published novel, so I take my top hat off to the author for delivering such clean prose. Full points for great well-motivated characters, a rollicking fast-paced plot plausible enough in its own madcap way and a beautifully detailed world, which leaves us to discuss the actual prose. I love this writer’s dialogue and humor. His style reminds me of my favorite Robert E. Heinlein stories, with swashbuckling, wise-cracking heroes, tongue-in-cheek at times with a knowing awareness and humor that leavens both dangerous and moving moments. Allen takes even the tiniest moment and gives it a little sparkle. Like when our hero has to jump naked from bed into a raging gunfight and find a way to present himself with some modesty a few minutes later to a beautiful woman, covered only by his holster. Or his description of a small moment in a card game:

““You’re called, mister,” the cowboy added.

Cole sighed and turned over his hole card. It was a king. The cowboy turned pale first, knowing he was beat, and just as Jake suspected, his face went from pale white to crimson in that slow transition far too many drunken cowboys get right before the shooting starts. Jake could see the alcohol coaxing liquid backbone into the cowboy.””

Recommendation: Read it if you are a fan of steampunk or Weird Wild West genre fiction. You will love the vivid characters, rollicking plot, madly creative world and snappy dialogue. May not have quite enough magic for fantasy and paranormal fans, and I promise there is far too much madness going on for those of you who like your reality real. As my motto is “Reality is for those who lack imagination,” call me a fan. I’m looking forward to the next installment in this madcap universe of the Blood War Chronicles.