YA Weekend: Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 1 of Alternative Detective
Publisher: Tor Teen (June 14, 2016)
Length: 336 pages
A.J. Hartley sure knows how to open a book with style. A public national and historical treasure of Bar-Selehm called the Beacon is stolen, and our protagonist, seventeen-year-old Anglet Sutonga, finds one of her fellow steeplejacks murdered hours before she finds herself becoming the guardian of her sister’s newborn infant—all in the same night.
Ang knows she’s in way over her head. And to make matters worse, she soon loses her job and becomes a target for her former boss. Which is why when politician Josiah Willinghouse gets in touch with her and offers a business proposal, Ang is inclined to hear him out.
Turns out, what Willinghouse is looking for is something Ang would like to know for herself as well. As news of the stolen Beacon continues to dominate the headlines, everyone seems to have forgotten about Berrit, the steeplejack who was murdered, and who happened to have been Ang’s new apprentice she was supposed to train. Knowing that she owes it to the boy to find out what really happened, Ang agrees to help Willinghouse investigate the death, using her many skills and contacts to shake out the truth.
One of the greatest things about Steeplejack is the world-building, and we’re talking about the full package. The setting is Bar-Selehm, a fictional city inspired by the history of South Africa, peppered with a fantasy flavor including some steampunk elements. I could have stayed forever in this story’s world. The society is mostly made up of a white colonist population and an indigenous black population, while Ang’s people, the Lani, are a third cultural group who live on the margins. The Lani have their own long history and keep many of their traditional customs, one of them pertaining to the number of daughters in a family. It is said that a first one is a blessing, the second a trial, and third is a curse.
Ang, being a third daughter, has had to live with some of that stigma her whole life. That said, she has not allowed this to dampen her independent spirit or strength of character. Being seen as a “curse” has also influenced her perspective on many matters, especially when it comes to family. Her experiences are what led to her sympathies and compassion for her sister’s fourth daughter, who would have been discarded and doomed to a harsh life in an orphanage had Ang not stepped in to take care of her—though that fateful decision will later on result in many heart-wrenching and emotional moments. Our protagonist is also proud to be a steeplejack, the name given to the nimble young workers who brave the heights to repair the city’s many chimneys, towers, and spires. At seventeen, she’s already one of the older ones, and a female to boot. In a city that rife with racial tensions, Ang’s background also factors into her unique role of steeplejack-turned-private investigator once she agrees to take on Willinghouse’s assignment.
Which brings us to the book’s overarching plot. There are two big questions here: 1) who killed Berrit, and 2) who stole the Beacon? It will probably come to no surprise that these two threads are connected, though Hartley saves all the shockers and best bombshells for the wild, twisted journey to get down to the bottom of this mystery. I also loved how Ang’s investigation involved a cast of vibrnat supporting characters, especially with Josiah Willinghouse’s snobby yet outrageously entertaining younger sister Dahria stealing the show.
All told, Steeplejack is an entertaining and fast-paced action-oriented story with a compelling mystery, which made it very quick read overall. The world-building was what impressed me the most though, along with a cast of engaging characters. Anglet Sutonga is an admirable though flawed protagonist who will nonetheless win over the hearts of readers no matter where they fall on the Young Adult to Adult spectrum, and same goes for the story which can be enjoyed by wide audience. This isn’t your typical YA, and that why I had such a great time with it. I understand sequel is on the horizon already, and I will most certainly be reading Firebrand for more of Ang’s adventures in Bar-Selehm.