Ang has always been on the outside looking in. At home, she is the arrogant girl that betrayed her family by moving to the city. In Bar-Selehm, she is a Lani streetrat, barely worth a second glance. Even with her benefactor and his family, she can’t be sure of her place: did the progressive politician Josiah Willinghouse hire her as a spy in order to advance his political career, or because he truly cares for the poor and the oppressed?
When Willinghouse is accused of killing the prime minister, throwing the city to the brink of a racial civil war, Ang is forced to take a stand. Belonging can be a complicated thing. But when it comes to resisting violent oppression, knowing who your allies are becomes a matter of life and death.
A.J. Hartley’s Guardian brings the author’s Steeplejack trilogy to a thrilling and hopeful conclusion. If 2016’s Steeplejack introduced a much-needed story about humanizing the people at the margins of society, and if 2017’s Firebrand offered a similarly timely look at forced migration, 2018’s installment has an even more complicated political landscape to reckon with. Add to that the complexities of our protagonist’s personal life—a mysterious illness that strikes her community, strained relationships with friends and family alike, and the looming threat of cynicism and hopelessness—and this slim little adventure story is all the more impressive.
Ang is thrown into the action right at the start of the story, and barely has time to compose herself for the rest of it. As with the first two novels of the trilogy, Guardian is fast and action-packed, full of intrigue and banter and dramatic reveals. This time, of course, there are more threads to tie together: what happened to her sister, the terrifying and vengeful Gargoyle of Bar-Selehm? What is the connection between the Willinghouse family and her own? And with a city in the midst of chaos, how will they show a united front to their enemies, the Grappoli?
In some ways, Guardian has the same pacing problems of the previous novel: it feels, at times, like Ang is reacting to plot points more than she is living through events. But those plot points are almost too dense to even notice. We sneak through the strange and sinister world of the circus right alongside Ang, looking for assassins and evading the terrifying guards that protect them. We witness her doubt herself and her allies again and again, and push forward anyway. We watch as she stitches together every community she’s part of, bit-by-bit, and see tenuous alliances form like freshly-planted seeds in a garden. This is a book best read in a single sitting; I’m not sure yet, if every piece stands up to scrutiny. As a romp and as an adventure story, though, it’s a delight.
I wanted to write this review without spoiling what I found to be the best reveal in the entire series, but to do so would be to leave out the piece that made me most excited to recommend it. And so, while remaining as vague as possible: if you think you’ve been imagining the queer undertones in this series, I’m here to tell you that you’re not. As a queer person that’s been involved in fandom since before I knew the meaning of the word, I’ve been baited and switched by more books and TV shows than I’d care to count. When I saw the chemistry between two female characters in the Steeplejack series, I didn’t dare to consider the possibility. But Guardian does what so many other fantasy series have been afraid to do—rolling out a queer frenemies-to-lovers romance that unfolds so slowly over the course of three books that it’s a revelation and a matter of fact at the same time.
As with series like The Legend of Korra, this romance comes late enough in the game that it’s hard not to feel cheated of more blatant and openly queer content. But at the end of the day, it’s an action-adventure story, and it follows the tropes of the genre: emotional complexity wrapped up into a soaring kiss, right at the climax of the story. We’ve seen it again and again in white, heteronormative stories, so it’s just as well that we’d mix it up a bit.
I’ve said it in my previous reviews of the series, and I’ll say it again: Hartley has written the kind of novels that I wish I had read as a teen, coming to terms with my sexuality and living in the midst of a terrifying political landscape. The Steeplejack series doesn’t sacrifice the personal for the political, or complexity for hope. In a time of despair, it’s a fun and exciting representation of community and kindness in the face of fear.
Guardian is available from Tor Teen.
Emily Nordling is a library assistant and perpetual student in Chicago, IL.