I knew Steeplejack (2016) was a YA thriller/mystery before picking up my review copy, but I wasn’t expecting it to be as solidly-written and entertaining as I ultimately found it to be. A.J. Hartley has not only created a compelling heroine and a richly imaginative world, but also multiple schemes driving the plot which depend on (and drive) social unrest that strikes extremely close to home in places.
Our story begins in the glorious city of Bar-Selehm, a metropolis which is geographically and culturally reminiscent of Johannesburg, South Africa; white Feldesland colonialists inhabit the upper echelons of power, brown-skinned Lani perform menial labor and live on the outskirts of town, and dark-skinned Mahweni generally live in the surrounding savannahs, herding animals. Some overtures have been made toward racial integration, but people in power rarely give it up gladly. Technologically, Bar-Selehm is reminiscent of the Western world in the late nineteenth-century: gas lamps are everywhere, people travel on foot or in horse-drawn cabs, and homes are heated via fireplaces and chimneys. Impoverished children find work as chimney-sweeps, and as they grow too large for the narrow flues, many of them graduate to repairing and restoring the brick-and-mortar exteriors of towers or chimneys: hence, steeplejacks.
Anglet Sutonga is one such steeplejack, and a talented one at that, but her simple life is turned upside down when her new apprentice is found dead the morning after Bar-Selehm’s most precious object, a massive luminous stone of great fame, is stolen. The police don’t care about a dead kid, but her insistence that Berrit was murdered draws the attention of a few ambitious politicians who think that the two events may be connected, and fear that far more is at stake. Anglet must reach out to newfound allies and use her wits, agility, and courage to find out what’s really going on before the entire city dissolves into chaos.
Bar-Selehm is a fantastically appealing city, but it’s also a very realistic one beneath the veneer of civility and sophistication, behind the opera houses and fancy shops. Opportunities abound for people with the lightest color of skin or socially acceptable names, but anyone unlucky enough to be born to non-white families or a name like “Sureyna” must subvert their identities into names like “Sarah” and accept menial work for far less pay than their Feldish counterparts. People in lower castes chafe against this system, creating an undercurrent of tension that ticks like a bomb in every one of Steeplejack’s chapters, waiting for the right moment to explode and tear the city apart, as a Mahweni nobleman explains to Anglet:
We say we are all equal in Bar-Selehm, but you know as well as I do that is not even close to being true. You cannot simply take people’s land, property, freedom from them and then, a couple of hundred years later, when you have built up your industries and your schools and your armies, pronounce them equals. And even when you pretend it is true, you do not change the hearts of men, and a great deal of small horrors have to be ignored, hidden, if the myth of equality is to be sustained.
Hartley gives Anglet a wonderful voice: street-smart and determined to do the right thing, but still unsure of herself and whether she’s capable of making the right choices for herself and those who depend on her. While her investigation deepens and she forms tentative friendships, we see an aspect of her personality that needs companionship in what would otherwise be a largely solitary life. The other characters are also quite interesting — Dahria, a politician’s sister who craves adventure and intrigue; Sureyna, a newspaper girl with hidden talents; Mnenga, a young Mahweni herdsman seeking one of his elders — and I hope that they’ll all make appearances in further STEEPLEJACK books.
The mystery aspect, as I said, was well-written; Hartley pads the plot with enough twists and moving parts that Anglet’s race to discover the truth takes an appropriate amount of time, but never feels over-long or too stuffed with diversions. Subplots that don’t directly affect the mystery still add to Anglet’s character growth, and provide cultural complexity that make her read as a still-developing human being rather than a young Sherlock Holmes clone.
Steeplejack’s conclusion wraps up most loose ends quite nicely, with satisfyingly realistic resolutions for the characters, while opening the door for as many sequels as Hartley might care to write. The first of these sequels, Firebrand, was just released this week, and you can bet I’ll be diving into it at the earliest opportunity. Highly recommended.