A. J. Hartley
Release Date: June 14, 2016
Multiculturalism is a tricky subject to capture, especially when your audience is younger and expects a YA fantasy, not a heavy-handed historical morality play. Kudos to A. J. Hartley, then, for bringing a story that neither shies away from nor lectures about the racial and societal diversity of his fantasy world, which is not so unlike ours.
Anglet Sutonga is a young woman who is as comfortable on the rooftops of Bar-Selehm as she in on its streets; she is a steeplejack, making a living repairing the chimneys, towers and spires of the city. Ang is Lani, a brown skinned native whose forefathers were brought to this South African type landscape along with wealthy white Feldish colonizers who still hold most of the prestigious and powerful positions in government and society. Ang is celebrated by some and reviled by others for turning her back on the Drowning, the impoverished tent city where most Lani still live, instead surviving on her own.
The metropolis of Bar-Selehm itself is already on a slow burn due to fractious relations with the Mahweni, the native black community who is divided between assimilated city dwellers and the tribal communities who have lived in the surrounding savanna for generations. There is also a constant threat of war with neighboring Grappoli, a threat that is constantly being whipped up by the powers that be, possibly to help keep attention from the eroding relations between the Feldish and the Mahweni.
So when the Beacon is stolen from the tallest spire in Bar-Selehm, the city becomes a powder keg of unrest, ready to erupt if given an adequate spark.
The Beacon is a huge crystal made of luxorite, a mineral with unique, brilliant, illuminatory qualities. Luxorite is extremely rare, found only in the mines near Bar-Selehm and giving the city its wealth and status. Now, however, most of the existing seams have run dry, making even the tiniest grain of luxorite extremely valuable. The Beacon is the largest chunk of luxorite ever quarried and has been atop the Trade Exchange for over 80 years, not only lighting up the surrounding streets but celebrated as the iconic symbol of the city itself.
Public opinion has it that the Grappoli are behind the disappearance of the Beacon, and all sides ready themselves for war. But when Ang discovers the body of another steeplejack, a young Lani boy named Berrit, she is thrust into an unexpected mystery as it becomes clear that Berrit’s death was not an unfortunate accident, but murder. When Ang refuses to stay silent in her demand for justice for “merely” a lowly Lani boy, she uncovers hints of a conspiracy that may lead straight to the purloined Beacon.
Aided and abetted by a wide range of bosses and accomplices, from ranking politicians, an unwitting scullery maid, a haughty dilettante, a Mahweni newspaper seller, a tribal goatherd, and various others, Ang starts off on the trail of a killer but ends up enmeshed in treachery that threatens to topple her entire world, and even end her life.
Steeplejack works well as a political thriller and whodunit, with plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader engaged. It does get a little predictable at the end, not in the specifics but in the outcome; still, the action is well laid out and tautly told.
But where Steeplejack really shines is in recognizing the multi-layered diversity of Ang’s world. Many YA works, for better or worse, concentrate on the young protagonist’s emotional growth, centering on budding romantic relationships and the like. There is an aspect of that in Steeplejack, but only as a fleeting suggestion. Instead, Ang’s emotional maturity comes from her interactions with the varied social structure around her.
Even her family is emotionally multi-layered. Both her parents are gone, and her two sisters have followed very different paths. Rahvey remains in the Drowning, living in poverty with her aimless husband and three daughters – three being the extent of the number of girls allotted to a single family per Lani tradition. When Rahvey gives birth to a fourth child – another daughter – Ang impulsively vows to take care of the child, something she is not prepared to do either emotionally or structurally.
Meanwhile, Ang’s oldest sister, Vestris, left the Drowning years ago under far different circumstances than Ang. Vestris is beautiful and light skinned, almost ethereal; being around her is like stepping into a dream. She has become rich and benevolent yet aloof, appearing suddenly for only a few ephemeral minutes before disappearing again into the height the of white society that now envelopes her.
Seeing Ang juggle all these disparate factors – pride in her Lani heritage yet frustrated with the ignorance and squalor of the Drowning, having to overcome ingrained conditioning towards whites and blacks alike, dealing with an overwhelming sense of being alone, of being incomplete, of being inadequate, and holding tight to an impartial sense of justice – is compelling and even heart-wrenching.
Yes, there are times that the narrative gets a little trite, a few too many sentiments, especially towards the end, tug on our heartstrings a bit too obviously (“Suddenly, strangely, I found myself missing Papa again, and I wondered if the day he died had been the day I stopped trusting anyone.”). But if you look beyond the slips into melodrama you find a gripping story line, a worthy heroine (and another round of kudos for Ang being a girl who does not need a male to assure her success), and a thought provoking depth of idea that makes Steeplejack a worthy read.
~ Sharon Browning