Steeplejack by A. J. Hartley is the story of a young woman struggling to make ends meet in a place similar to South Africa in our world, but with just a bit of magic thrown in. I feel like Steeplejack is a direct answer to our demand for more diverse characters in fantasy, while also being an addictive and action-packed read. I was really happy I had an entire day to do nothing but read, since I didn’t want to stop for a minute!
Note: I received an advanced copy of Steeplejack from the publisher. Some things may have changed in the final version.
Steeplejack by A. J. Hartley (Alternative Detective #1)
Published by Tor Teen on June 14th, 2016
Genres: Historical Fantasy, YA
Page Length: 336 pages
How I got my copy: Publisher
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Seventeen-year-old Anglet Sutonga, Ang for short, repairs the chimneys, towers, and spires of Bar-Selehm, the ethnically-diverse industrial capital of a land resembling Victorian South Africa. The city was built on the trade of luxorite, a priceless glowing mineral. When the Beacon, a historical icon made of luxorite, is stolen, it makes the headlines. But no one cares about the murder of Ang's new apprentice, Berrit—except for Josiah Willinghouse, an enigmatic young politician, who offers Ang a job investigating Berrit's death. On top of this, Ang struggles with the responsibility of caring for her sister's newborn child.
As political secrets unfold and racial tensions surrounding the Beacon's theft rise, Ang navigates the constricting traditions of her people, the murderous intentions of her former boss, and the conflicting impulses of a fledgling romance. With no one to help her except a savvy newspaper girl and a kindhearted herder from the savannah, Ang must resolve the mysterious link between Berrit and the missing Beacon before the city is plunged into chaos.
- What immediately caught my eye in the description of Steeplejack is a setting inspired by South Africa. Obviously there is a lot of history in that country, but that racial tension between two very distinct groups was something that was clearly brought in to Steeplejack to explore. There is a similar historical context for how such different groups of people ended up living in the same city, and I appreciated a fantasy context to explore those issues.
- Steeplejack is fairly minimally fantasy, though it had enough unexplainable bits to satisfy me. It is clearly not set in our world and the main focus is on a mysterious mineral that glows brighter than any fire. I’ve seen this book labeled as steampunk, and it sort of fits that, but there isn’t the same emphasis on crazy inventions that steampunk often features. Historical fantasy is a good way to put it.
- Ang is one of three distinct cultural/racial groups living in this city. There are people with exceedingly dark skin and pale skin, which fall into the labels we are accustomed to using. However Ang has brown skin and her people were originally brought to the area by the white people. There are also the native dark skinned people who have chosen not to assimilate into the city life and continue their traditional way of life by herding and farming. There is a lot of discussion about race due to this set up and I appreciated that Ang and a dark-skinned boy she meets are the ones doing the discussing. Too often white characters lead the discussion. (I have tried really hard in this point to discuss these groups in a way that doesn’t force labels from our world onto them, while also being respectful and accurate. Let me know if I could improve it!)
- While the writing of Steeplejack in general isn’t the star, I was struck from time to time by particular phrases that stood out for their beauty and accuracy in describing some abstract concept. Since the majority of the writing is focused on action and character development, those beautiful flourishes were all the more memorable.
- There are a lot of twists and turns in this plot as Ang tries to figure out what the heck is going on. I liked that she suspected things were connected even though it wasn’t obvious how. I feel like this was one of the more realistic ways for a mystery-focused plot to progress, given Ang’s personality.
- Ang early on takes on responsibility for a baby that isn’t wanted. I was surprised to see a young adult heroine being forced into that responsibility, but it was refreshing. There are a lot of young moms struggling with taking care of a baby while trying to find work, and Ang’s difficulties bring that to life on the page.
- For this to be a perfect book for me, I would have wanted a bit more insight into the fantasy elements that were there. The apparently magical mineral is just a fact of life and no one questions how it works. I want to know!
Steeplejack is a book that will keep you up way past your bedtime, wondering how Ang is going to figure everything out. I love seeing a heroine that struggles with taking care of an infant and racism in a fantasy, since that just doesn’t happen that often. This is a series I’ll be eager to continue.
Have you read this one? What did you think? Are you excited for it if you haven’t gotten to it yet?
Steeplejack by A. J. Hartley
© 2016, Anya. All rights reserved.