With Guardian (2018), A.J. Hartley brings his STEEPLEJACK trilogy to a triumphant close. Readers who savored the voyeuristic thrill of soaring along rooftops and bringing evildoers to justice alongside Anglet Sutonga in Steeplejack and Firebrand are sure to cheer as she tackles an even more daunting task: gathering allies both near and far to protect the city she calls home. The STEEPLEJACK books (and reviews of said books) need to be read in order, but I’ll try to keep unavoidable spoilers to a bare minimum.
As if solving a massive theft and tracking down a cat burglar weren’t enough to hang her quasi-repuation on, Ang’s troubles have multiplied. This time, she takes it upon herself to solve the murder of Bar-Selehm’s Prime Minister while evading the thugs employed by a dangerous Heritage Party fanatic and searching out the source of a strangely familiar disease afflicting Lani girls living in the Drowning and participating in peaceful protests against the newly-appointed authoritarian government’s crackdown on anyone who isn’t light-skinned enough to match their racist nonsense. Her employer, Josiah Willinghouse, will be of no help to her — he’s the person accused of murdering the Prime Minister, and since Josiah was found covered in the man’s blood and holding a knife, it looks pretty bad for him.
Ang and Dahria, Josiah’s sister, believe him to be innocent, but the man appointed to replace the Prime Minister is the loathsome Norton Richter, and he’s only too glad to use this opportunity to slap a curfew on Black and Lani people, forbid them from working in most sectors of the city, and prohibit them from shopping and living in upper- or middle-class neighborhoods. The political turmoil which has been brewing since Steeplejack comes to a full boil-over in Guardian, and several scenes feature protests, marches, assemblies, and powerful speeches meant to get the reader’s heart racing and to make them think about parallels between the injustice in Bar-Selehm and the real world, whether in a historical sense or as current events unfold around us.
So, relying on assistance from old friends like Suryena and Mnenga, and combining the influences of Captain Emtezu, Inspector Andrews, and a charismatic young activist who believes in equality for all people regardless of race or gender, Ang sets out to save Bar-Selehm from its worst elements: corruption and oppression. Whether they will succeed or fail will depend on how much they are willing to sacrifice to the greater good, and several moments in Guardian carried an unexpectedly emotional heft.
All of the remaining narrative threads left over from Steeplejack and Firebrand are wrapped up nicely by the conclusion of Guardian, answering questions I’ve been carrying around since the beginning. What’s more, the subtle signs of a possible romance have become a little stronger from each book to the next, and in fact are openly acknowledged in Guardian without jumping straight from initial attraction to full-blown professions of undying adoration, which is something I so rarely see in YA fiction that I almost missed the hints leading to the big reveal. Like everything else in this series, Hartley handles this aspect of the novel with sensitivity and realism, displaying the positive and negative attributes of the involved parties in an even-handed way while allowing them plenty of time to get to know one another as real people rather than impossibly-idealized caricatures of themselves. It’s a fascinating approach, and ultimately it enriches the series without overwhelming the other components.
Hartley’s portrayal of a young woman of color who risks everything in service to the city and people she loves is a profoundly hopeful, honest, and relevant one. Anglet Sutonga is a true hero, and I hope Guardian, and the entire STEEPLEJACK series, inspires readers to go out and do something to make their world a better place. I’ll leave you with a quote that made an especially strong impression on me:
Then we will resist, whatever the hope of success. We will stand for the city we love, the version of the world we love, for right and for justice. Yes?