Sunday, July 10, 2016

Book Review: Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley

A.J. Hartley
YA/Historical fantasy
Tor Teen
Pub Date
June 14, 2016
Purchased hardcover from Amazon
Ang Sutonga is the one person who can find her way from the depths of the Drowning's misery to the top of Bar-Selehm's city spires and solve the mysteries of a young boy's death and the theft of the city's greatest treasure.

Publisher’s Description:
Thoughtfully imaginative and action-packed, Steeplejack is New York Times bestselling A. J. Hartley's YA debut set in a 19th-century South African fantasy world

Seventeen-year-old Anglet Sutonga lives repairing the chimneys, towers, and spires of the city of Bar-Selehm. Dramatically different communities live and work alongside each other. 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 over generations ago as servants 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 her a job investigating his 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.

What I liked
"The last person up here never made it down alive, but there was no point thinking about that." What a terrific first line! This is great storytelling. Hartley's use of language is smooth and expansive, poetic and philosophical by turns, and yet completely draws the reader in to the physical world and Ang's thoughts as she finds herself and her city in increasingly desperate situations. The mystery and danger feel very real, as Ang uncovers piece after piece of the puzzle.

I particularly appreciated Hartley's subtle inclusion of the natural world throughout the story. Ang is a city girl and says herself that she is uncomfortable around large animals, which are seen and heard throughout the story as she moves through the city and countryside. A real and imagined menagerie, including hippos and giraffes in the wild, and jackals and mongoose living in the old city, as well as weancats and pink rollers (birds) that are deftly described usually in passing, an integral part of life in and around Bar-Selehm.

What I didn’t like

To be honest, although I loved the worldbuilding, especially the descriptions of the natural world and the cultures, there are a lot of storylines weaving together, and sometimes I had a hard time keeping the cast of characters straight. And the one storyline that felt dissatisfying to me was around Ang's newborn niece, Kalla, which is the only part of the story that felt unrealistic from the beginning. However, it included several key elements of storytelling and character development, and was emotionally important to Ang's narrative.


I thoroughly enjoyed Steeplejack and look forward to the next Alternative Detective story from A.J. Hartley, whether it tells more of Ang's story or others. This is a fast-paced, engaging read, with a satisfying mystery and lots of cultural and personal narratives woven together in a fascinating tapestry.

I give Steeplejack 4-1/2 out of five “sparks”.


And so, with a loving heart, I offer you
I’ve heard many translations. Here’s my favorite:
The light of the universe that shines within me recognizes
the light of the universe that shines within you.


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