SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for January: Big Trouble in Old Shanghai by Jeannie Lin

by Sunita

Argh, I’m a day late. But the “short shorts” prompt for January is my friend. I meant to read all of Jeannie Lin’s newest release for this month but I ran out of time and only had time for the first story. Even this brief return was enough to remind me why I like Jeannie’s work so much.

“Big Trouble in Old Shanghai” is the first in a 3-story collection set in her Gunpowder Alchemy world, and the connection is made in the title of the collection: Tales From the Gunpowder Chronicles. I read the previous two novels and one of the short stories when they came out and really enjoyed them. They’re not straight romance, rather they are wuxia-inspired adventure tales with romantic elements, but they are written with the same careful attention to the historical context of all her stories.

I was halfway through the story before I realized that the title was a riff on Big Trouble in Little China, the 1986 adventure film directed by John Carpenter starring Kurt Russell as Jack Burton. Lin says in her author’s note that the American main character here, Dean Burton, is a tip of the hat more than a recreation of the movie Burton. The narrator and main protagonist is Ming-fen, a young woman who works in the Western concession zone of Shanghai. She has only her elder brother, Ren, after her parents were exiled as traitors by the Manchu Dynasty. Shanghai is roiling with rebels plotting to overthrow the Manchu, and Ren turns out to be smack in the middle of it. Ming-fen has no love for the Manchu rulers, but she doesn’t want to get caught up in rebellions that are bound to leave hundreds if not thousands of innocent people caught in the middle.

But when rebels stark attacking, she’s forced into running for her life. Ren has armed her with a red sash, which signals that she is sympathetic to them, and she is slowly trying to make her way back to her home and hopefully safety when she falls in with Dean Burton, an American businessman she knows from the Dragon’s Den bar where she works. She becomes embroiled in Dean’s furtive activities in ways I won’t detail because the story is best read without spoilers.

Like the other Gunpowder Chronicles novels and stories, the setting here is a mixture of thick historical description and gunpowder-based steampunk fantasy. And as usual, I found the two mixed really well. I’m not a huge steampunk reader but I’ve always enjoyed the way Lin integrates the technology into a China-set martial arts context. Ming-fen is the type of heroine we’ve seen before in Lin’s stories, an intelligent, caring young woman who can take care of herself but would prefer a quieter world. In this case her weapons of choice are rope darts, which I’d never heard of but which were great fun to read about.

The book combines light moments with poignant ones and the writing is quietly effective. The relationship between Ming-fen and Burton is mostly an opposites-attract, sparring type of interaction and fits the story. I would have liked to read more about their developing friendship, but it wrapped up nicely for its length. Now I want to go back and reread the whole Gunpowder Chronicles series.

Readers, please note that this collection is not available from Amazon, for reasons which Lin explains in this blog post. I bought my copy from Kobo, but if you have to have a Kindle-compatible version, i.e., you don’t have the ability to convert epub, she has a link to a different site.