Title: Steeplejack (Alternative Detective #1)
Author: A.J. Hartley
Genre: Mystery / Fantasy
Publication Date: June 14th, 2016
Hardcover: 336 Pages
Source: Personal Purchase
Seventeen-year-old Anglet Sutonga, makes a living repairing the chimneys, towers, and spires of Bar-Selehm. Dramatically different communities live and work alongside one another. The white Feldish command the nation’s higher echelons of society; the native Mahweni are divided between city life and the savannah. And then there’s Ang, part of the Lani community who immigrated there generations ago and now mostly live in poverty on Bar-Selehm’s edges.
When Ang is supposed to meet her new apprentice, Berrit, she finds him dead. That same night the Beacon, an invaluable historical icon, is stolen. The Beacon’s theft commands the headlines, yet no one seems to care about Berrit’s murder—except for Josiah Willinghouse, an enigmatic young politician. When he offers Ang a job investigating the death, she plunges headlong into new and unexpected dangers.
Meanwhile, crowds gather in protests over the city’s mounting troubles. Rumors surrounding the Beacon’s theft grow. More suspicious deaths occur. With no one to help Ang except Josiah’s haughty younger sister, a savvy newspaper girl, and a kindhearted herder, Ang must rely on her intellect and strength to resolve the mysterious link between Berrit and the missing Beacon before the city descends into chaos.
“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….”
It was the cover for SteepleJack that first grabbed my attention when perusing upcoming releases online. Industrial, enticing in its brown and gold colors, the name in stark white—yet smudged at its roots—the cover conveyed a vaguely Steampunk feel, which compelled me to click through, seeking out more information. Its blurb promised mystery, a practical heroine and diverse cast, with a heavy dose of political intrigue, all set against an exotic city of gaslights and towering spires. Of course, it went on the preorder list; it hit too many of my preferences to not.
I do want to say that SteepleJack is not a Steampunk-genre story, nor is it a fantasy story. It could, perhaps, be placed in the historical fiction stacks, as it does borrow heavily from the histories of British Colonial Africa and India, mixing together the two into its own unique. However, that isn’t what this book is.
SteepleJack is a mystery. A classically-told YA mystery couched in smog, soot, and gaslight, and I loved every page of it.
The story opens with a theft, a murder, and the introduction of Anglet (Ang) Sutonga, city steeplejack by trade and necessity, and a child of The Drowning (the Lani settlement outside the city) by birth. When the police dismiss the death of her new apprentice as accidental, she investigates what she knows is a murder and finds herself embroiled in a web of political machinations that pull her farther and farther away from her Lani roots into the opera houses of high Feldish society and into the sights of the native Mahweni tribe. She struggles with duty to family and friends, even as she fights to uncover what seems to be a plot to destabilize the city of Bar-Selehm, fanning the banked coals of ever-present racial tensions.
I found Ang to be a very straightforward heroine, though I hesitate to put that label on her. She does not act out of a desire to be a heroic, but out of a desire to bring attention to how things should be done, not how they have always been done. She fights against the traditions of her community, taking on responsibility for her sister’s forbidden fourth daughter. She follows breadcrumb trails with dogged determination that almost gets her killed more than once. When the police doubt her and her friends in high places feel she’s failed, Ang does not stop in her search, determined to finish what her apprentices death started, to give it meaning. She is very much the everyman hero: average, unassuming, and constantly surprised to have found herself in such a situation.
I particularly loved the way Ang’s profession—the climbing atop and repairing of the high spires and chimneys of the city—comes into play. When one’s primary view of a city is from the bird’s eye, one’s perspective becomes quite unique, and she uses that to her advantage multiple times. Hartley does an excellent job of describing the parkour-esque runs through the city streets and spires, Ang’s fear of a misstep conveyed clearly, but also conveyed is her knowledge that acknowledging that fear makes her as good as dead. His descriptions of the city, its diverse population, and that of his primary and secondary characters, comes not all in a flood, but in pieces. We are slowly given a full picture of them all, and that allows for far richer development of the world in the mind’s eye. SteepleJack is billed as the first in a series, and I sincerely hope to see more of Ang, and the city of Bar-Selehm in the future.
I highly recommend Steeplejack for mystery fans, and for those looking for diverse fiction featuring predominately PoC casts. If you’d like a taste of Ang’s world before grabbing the book, you can read Chains, a novelette prequel to Steeplejack, hosted for free on Tor’s website.