I don’t read much YA. If there is much as good as Steeplejack out there, I need to read a lot more. Steeplejack follows a 17-year-old chimney repairer turned private investigator in a fantasy South Africa. The story following her investigation draws from mysteries, Dickens, steampunk, mannerpunk and on. It also has a real heart and approaches serious issues with the appropriate seriousness, something you can apparently only get if you get away from adult fiction.
Firebrand, the sequel to Steeplejack, comes out on Tuesday, June 6th. Stay tuned for a review and giveaway next week!
A little more exposition. 17-year-old Anglet Sutonga, or Ang for short, is a steeplejack, a real term for the craftsmen who repair spires and chimneys and the like. In this 19th century-esque world, that is a job for the young, and not many live to be 17. The book starts with Ang making a climb; on her way down she discovers that the apprentice that was supposed to meet her had been up already and taken the express back down. The knife wound she notices on the body is one of two spurs for the mystery at the heart of Steeplejack.
The other is the theft of the Beacon. Steeplejack’s setting, Bar-Selehm, is a colonial outpost-turned-industrial power. Its wealth was built on a fantastical crystal called “luxorite” that exudes a very bright light. The local veins of luxorite have long since been exhausted, and a combination of scarcity and competition from gaslights has made it more popular as conspicuous consumption, but it remains the symbol of Bar-Selehm’s wealth. Especially the huge crystal lighting the beacon at the top of the Trade Exchange. And it has been stolen.
Ang is Lani, an Indian analog. I didn’t fully realize it until the end, but Hartley is essentially using a version of colonial South Africa with the serial numbers filed off. Indians really were imported to be used as indentured servants and the like. In Bar-Selehm they form a foreign underclass, to go along with the native underclass (the black Mahweni, whether in the city or part of the Unassimilated Tribes), and a white, foreign upperclass. The historical inspiration probably helps Hartley flesh out the politics of it all, leading to a much more nuanced treatment than I’m used to seeing. A lot of Ang’s character is bound up in her discomfort in her place within her own culture.
The “Lani way” was the rule that said that no family could have more than three daughters. The first daughter, it was said, was a blessing. The second, a trial. The third, a curse. As a third daughter myself, I felt the full weight of that last piece of wisdom, which was why I spent as little time among “my people” as possible. Rahvey had three girls already. If she gave birth to another, the child would be sent to an orphanage. In the old days, if no suitable mother could be found, more drastic steps would be taken—a grim little secret the appalled white settlers had made illegal. Such practices had, supposedly, ended, but there were accidents during the birthing of unwanted daughters, which people did not scrutinize too closely.”
Setting aside that that is as open a pro-life message as you could expect to find in a traditionally published novel, there is so much storytelling there. It tells you much about what drives Ang, about her relationship with her heritage and her community and her sister. It shows that Hartley isn’t afraid to address serious issues but also doesn’t feel like he has to spoon feed them to the reader. You might expect a sermon to go along with the above passage, but little else is said. Hartley trusts the reader to understand how horrible that is.
Steeplejack consistently shows heart. It’s one of the things that makes it stand out. Take this passage:
“We did not see eye to eye on many things, my father and I,” said Ansveld Jr. “We argued a great deal. I wish now . . . But he loved luxorite, and not only because selling it had made him a very wealthy man. It’s funny, isn’t it?” he added thoughtfully. “Everyone knows that if they live long enough, they will see their parents die, but it still comes as a surprise. Turns you into a child again.” He blinked and tried to smile. “I expect the feeling passes.”
“It doesn’t,” I said, the words coming out without anything like deliberation.
He gave me a look that was surprised, even indignant, but he couldn’t keep it up. “No,” he said, managing the saddest smile I had ever seen. “I didn’t really think it would.”
Steeplejack also has a lot more going for it. One hundred feet above the cobblestones on a rickety chimney is a hell of a setting. One of my very few complaints is that we didn’t get more high flying action (there remains quite a bit). I loved everything about Ang. The other highlights were Tanish, her apprentice, and Dahria, the sister of the man who comes to employ Ang.
Steeplejack is a hard book to pin down. It owes something to the Sherlock Holmes stories, I think. And it is Dickensian, or at least what I imagine Dickensian fiction to be, not having read any actual Dickens, to my shame. It is certainly urban fantasy, if not contemporary. It is at least ostensibly steampunk, if largely lacking in the usual trappings of the subgenre. And for a brief, wonderful interlude when Ang goes undercover as Dahria’s maid, it is mannerpunk (every scene with Dahria is pure gold; I’m happy to say that we will see more of her in the sequel).
A.J. Hartley is a professor of Shakespeare and a man who knows his prose. Usually he keeps it plain as is the norm in YA, but occasionally he shows flashes of brilliance.
“Nerve, I had. Nerve and fire. When the dam broke, more than grief gushed out, and some of what came slicing through those awful waters had teeth.”
And he knows how to convey a point while keeping within the bounds of YA. “[I]f you do not know what a fall from a great height does to a human body, thank whatever god you believe in and hope you never find out. I will not be the one to show you.”
Steeplejack is a delightful, superversive book that hits on all cylinders. I rarely mention covers, but I have to gush. It’s not only beautiful, but perfectly conveys both the details of the book and the sort of book it is, with even the font doing the work of showing that Ang is as comfortable 100-feet above the cobblestones as on them. I’m loving the sequel too, and look forward to reviewing it.
4.5 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of Steeplejack from the publisher.