Review of Firebrand by A.J. Hartley
by A.J. Hartley
Mike Heath is back at it again with that great cover art. Ugh. That angled title. Yes.
Yes yes yes yes yes.
Oh, and A.J. Hartley wrote a book that goes between these covers. It’s pretty good too.
What, you want more? OK, fine.
Firebrand is one of those sequels that comes out swinging, delivering more of what you loved about the first book without any of that messy “middle book” syndrome that so often afflicts trilogies/series. If anything, it’s more compelling, more interesting, more full of risky storytelling and themes. Although you can read and enjoy this book without reading Steeplejack, why would you deprive yourself of Ang’s origin story? And your appreciation for Firebrand is definitely going to be greater.
No longer a steeplejack, Ang is working on the down low for Josiah Willinghouse, Member of Parliament for the Brevard Party in Bar-Selehm. When a mysterious thief steals the plans for a top secret new weapon, Ang has to infiltrate an exclusive society club with a white supremacist lean in order to hobnob with the richy-rich people and uncover a conspiracy among Bar-Selehm’s high society. Meanwhile, refugees continue to pour into the city as a result of Bar-Selehm’s rival, Grappoli, continuing to prosecute its war against the tribes in the area. As this situation increases the tension and the turmoil in the city, Ang’s choices and her ability to uncover this plot might have a direct effect on the livelihoods and lives of so many of the city’s less privileged inhabitants.
It is so nice to return to Bar-Selehm. I loves me the great fictional fantasy cities, and this one is no exception. Hartley does a great job initiating us into the politics and demographics of the city and its neighbours without too much exposition. We quickly understand that this is about colonialist and imperialist ambitions, racism, and of course, capitalism. In other words, Hartley has produced a loose allegory for the politics of so many places in this world in a way that is relatable and understandable. I know this book gets labelled sometimes as young adult, and I’m not sure I agree with that, but I think that young adults who read this will (a) get the allegory and (b) enjoy the hell out of it. From the odious and white supremacist Richter to the exploitative Nathan Horrich, there are plenty of antagonists in Firebrand who resemble all too well high-profile figures in today’s politics.
Paired with this amazing setting is the equally exquisite protagonist, Anglet Sutonga. Firebrand burns brightly exactly because Ang is already so different from who she was in Steeplejack, and over the course of this book, she continues to grow and change. She reflects on this explicitly, observing how Madame Nahreem and others push her to become someone she isn’t. Whether it’s adopting the persona of Lady Ki Misrai to infiltrate Elitus (ugh, that name) or simply donning that “neutral mask” as she pursues her duties for Willinghouse, Ang is discovering that her old persona is no longer sufficient. This is not a bad thing. As we grow up, we realize how we have to change to tackle the new challenges that face us and achieve the goals we set for ourselves. Ang is no longer a steeplejack. She has set new goals for herself, like finding a way to provide education for her sister’s children. I love watching Ang become a more capable person, even as she deliberates with herself over exactly who she wants to become.
Hartley keeps all of this going at a good clip. I was a little worried when, about a third of the way into the book, Willinghouse suddenly brings Ang out into the countryside for a training montage. This proves to be a bit of a red herring, though, or a brief detour before Ang is back in Bar-Selehm to infiltrate Elitus. From there, matters move with alacrity, and it is not an exaggeration to say that for the last hundred or so pages I was loath to put this book down.
It’s unfortunate that some adults will pass this series by because it’s labelled/marketed as young adult. This is a book that adults and adolescents alike will enjoy.
The only thing that struck me as a bit odd was the whole thing with the Gargoyle. I kind of see what Hartley is doing with that, but not really? I just wish we had a little more to go on—not necessarily complete closure, if it’s going to be an important thread in book 3, but at least a little more to think about.
Firebrand has everything I want in a sequel. Full stop. Can’t wait for book 3!