I was all kinds of impressed by Hartley’s Steeplejack. Firebrand improves on it. Hartley is more confident in his story, his setting, and his characters, and it shows. Ang Sutonga is back as a private detective/secret agent for parliamentary backbencher Josiah Willinghouse, and she has a new mystery to solve. Ang may no longer repair chimneys and clocktowers as a steeplejack, but rest assured that much of the action takes place above street level. And Hartley continues to handle hot button issues with far more nuance and understanding than his peers.
Sound good? See details below for your chance to win copies of Steeplejack and Firebrand!
I complained that Steeplejack didn’t have quite enough high flying action, starring a steeplejack and all. Evidently Hartley read my complaint and rewrote Firebrand accordingly, while it was sitting on my desk. That’s dedication to the craft, friends. Firebrand opens with Ang chasing a gentleman thief across the rooftops of Bar-Selehm. Not content with breaking into brownstones to stare at noblewomen while they sleep (and, uh, steal their jewels), the cat burglar has stolen plans from the War Office. The chase ends with a showdown at the end of the arm of a construction crane hanging over the river and, yeah, this book is gonna be good.
The stolen plans were for a new and improved machine gun design. Ang has to get to the bottom of their theft with national security at stake. This will involve a lot of burglarizing of the homes and factories of Bar-Selehm’s leading industrials and politicians. Ang must also enlist the help of Willinghouse’s Lani grandmother, Nahreem, to train her for an infiltration of Bar-Selehm’s most elite and exclusive club (through the front door). And all this while Bar-Selehm is—again—boiling, this time from fighting elsewhere on the continent, an influx of refugees into the city, and the rise of a white supremacist party in Parliament.
It wasn’t entirely clear (at least to me) that Bar-Selehm was a quarter-turn version of
South Africa until the afterword of Steeplejack. Firebrand makes Bar-Selehm’s place in the larger continent much more obvious. The continent is in turmoil, with Bar-Selehm’s rival the Grappoli fighting tribal insurgencies in the north. Which among other things is creating a refugee crisis in Bar-Selehm. I groaned inwardly when the refugees appeared. That, of all things, I didn’t trust a writer to handle well. But Hartley is no hack.
Firebrand tells a standalone mystery story, but it continues Ang’s story from Steeplejack. It does both very well. Ang remains a highlight, and, as I said, I’m very glad Hartley gave her even more chances to climb. The mystery is again complex and interesting. Ang’s enemies are deadly. Hartley handles the issues raised adroitly, and the “Heritage” party is even more chilling given where we know the history of the real South Africa went (I would say they are too over the top racist, but, well, South Africa). The characters from Steeplejack are all back, and Willinghouse’s sister Dahria continues to steal every scene she is in. The books ends with a satisfying conclusion to the mystery at its core but also with a hint about Ang that has me desperate to get my dirty mitts on the third book. Hartley continues to write prose that is at the same time plain and beautiful.
Firebrand also remains superversive. There is a point well into the book where Ang questions why she cares so much about getting to the bottom of things. It isn’t her salary from Willinghouse. It isn’t driven by the death of someone she knew and from her corner of society, as in Steeplejack. The answer Ang eventually comes to amounts to something along the lines of Truth, Justice, and the Bar-Selehm Way. Ang cares because it is the right thing to do. Back in the day we used to call people like her heroes. (I’m told there is a movie featuring a female hero doing moderately well at the moment. Perhaps Hollywood should give Hartley a call.)
Bravo! Now, for the…
Ok, first the ways to enter:
- However you enter, make sure I have some way to get a hold of you. E.g., if you enter by Retweet, make sure I can DM you. Maybe this means you should follow me on Twitter. You should follow me on Twitter.
- Giveaway ends on Wednesday, June 14.
- This giveaway is open to residents of the United States and Canada. It’s like you’re our 51st state already!
- The giveaway will be fulfilled directly by the publisher.
5 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of Firebrand from the publisher.