Ang is seventeen and just doing her job—her very complicated, very dangerous job—when two things happen that will change her life. First, she sees that the Beacon, Bar-Selehm’s greatest and brightest icon, has been stolen from its place towering above the steam and chimneys of the city. Second, she finds her new apprentice, Berrit, dead. The work of a steeplejack is not for the faint of heart: climbing the tall and twisting buildings of Bar-Selehm is a constant matter of life and death. But Berrit didn’t fall from a building or a ladder; he was stabbed. And Ang’s steeplejack skills are about to come in handy for more than just repairing the crumbling facades of the city.
A.J. Hartley’s Steeplejack is equal parts South African-inspired steampunk, detective fiction, coming-of-age saga, and political intrigue; it is as diverse in genre and theme as it is in its characters. Add to all of this Ang—courageous, kind, and out-of-place no matter where she goes—and you’ll find a reading experience both rich and impossible to turn away from. Ang’s quest to solve Berrit’s murder takes her from the toxic maneuvers of high society to the stifling conformity of village life, from surrogate motherhood to violent protests. It is a complex story that only a protagonist like Ang could carry; a story filled with danger and hope alike.
After she attempts to report Berrit’s death to an unsympathetic police force, Ang is abducted by a mysterious white man named Josiah Willinghouse, who thinks that the sinister events of that evening are connected. It’s not an unreasonable assumption, and despite her discomfort with the man, Ang agrees to work for him, putting her steeplejack skills to use as a private investigator. She climbs and weaves her way through this second world fantasy cityscape, through rich shops and disenfranchised suburbs. She befriends genius newspaper girls and kind-hearted shepherds; and she makes enemies of more than a few powerful men. And through much of this, Ang carries a precious, irreplaceable parcel, one that she will guard with her life: her sister’s baby.
The plot of Steeplejack is as twisting and turning as a sprawling city map. Every group that Ang encounters represents a different political interest: the casually cruel white colonizers and the black city dwellers that protest them, the nomadic herders that hover at the city’s edges, and Ang’s own tribe—the Lani—that seem rooted on a dying piece of land. But these groups are far from faceless, and Ang’s relationships with the people that share her struggles and her city escalate the stakes of the story to towering heights. And the places, too, have faces: Bar-Selehm is a terror and a wonder, a fully-imagined city whose smokestacks I could still smell after I’d finished the book.
Through all of her trials, though, it is Ang’s desire to understand Berrit’s death that forms the emotional core of the novel. As she surveys the place where he was killed, now cleared of his blood and bustling with daytime activity, Ang thinks, “life had moved on, and insofar as the world had known Berrit existed, it had already forgotten him. As it will forget me if Morlak finds me. As it forgot Papa.” Her life and the lives of the other oppressed, marginal people she is surrounded with, mean little to the elites of Bar-Selehm. They are workers, urchins, lowlives, and bumpkins—replaceable, and worst of all, forgettable. Ang’s drive to protect her sister’s child, her found family as well as her blood, is a drive towards life in all its forms. It is a drive, most importantly, towards respect and remembrance, towards valuing life over wealth and symbols. There are a great deal many ideas to suss out in Steeplejack, but in light of contemporary events and politics, it is this theme of remembrance that held my heart and kept me reading.
I’m a white blogger reviewing a white author, and so I don’t want to overstate my praise for this book in terms of its representation and diversity. Hartley himself does a lovely job of talking about such complications in his recent post on the Tor/Forge blog. I also don’t want to promote Steeplejack over books by authors of color; I consider my enjoyment of Hartley’s work as a “yes/and,” rather than an “either/or.” I do think that, in general, Steeplejack is a valuable addition to the ongoing conversation about diversity in YA. It’s the kind of book that I wish I had found as a young reader, and it’s the kind of book that will probably make a huge difference in more than one reader’s life. That alone makes the book delightful. The gorgeously-crafted world and the non-stop political intrigue are just perks.
Emily Nordling is a library assistant and perpetual student in Chicago, IL.