Review of Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley
by A.J. Hartley
Oh my god give me more of these books right damn now.
I don’t normally do this, but can we just stop for a moment and look at this utterly gorgeous cover by Mike Heath? I was going to read Steeplejack from the description alone, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t the cover that caught my eye while I was browsing the New Books shelf. Everything about this cover is amazing. The entire shot is from an off-kilter perspective, neither horizontal nor vertical, forcing us to look at everything from a weird angle. The font is gorgeous, perfect for the book’s milieu and atmosphere without feeling stereotypically steampunk. Plus, the letters are perfectly aligned with the direction of the tower in an awesome perspective effect that creates a compelling sense of motion. Like, it looks like a still from the movie of the book: open on Ang climbing a tower as the credits zoom past her. I am not a visual person; not only do I not tend to judge books by the cover, but I also tend to ignore cover art entirely, despite the amount of work and passion that cover artists put into it (sorry). But I cannot ignore this cover. It’s great. I just want to stare at it forever.
Fortunately, A.J. Hartley has written a book worthy of such a cover. Like so many of the titles I’ve raved about this past summer, Steeplejack took me a while to warm to—but when I did, boy did I ever. Ultimately, it is the humanity and vulnerability of the protagonist, Anglet Sutonga, that got me. She is capable but far from competent at everything she tries in this novel, and the people arranged against her vary from evil and racist merely to opportunistic and bitter. And through Ang, Hartley broaches issue of class and race in a way that could have been preachy but somehow isn’t.
At its heart, Steeplejack is an investigation into the death (murder?) of an unremarkable young boy, Berrit. Ang didn’t know Berrit—he was supposed to become her apprentice, but he turns up dead instead. Indeed, it becomes a running “joke” (unfunny one) that everyone is so surprised Ang keeps poking into Berrit’s death, because “she didn’t know him”. This leads to Ang’s Crowning Moment of Awesome:
Why does everyone keep saying that?… Why does whether I knew him or not matter? He was a child, a boy you murdered. I have to avenge him because I didn’t know him. Because he will never have what other boys his age look forward to. He was snuffed out, all his possibilities ended by your knife, and I am not supposed to care because I didn’t know him?
This is a powerful moment, Ang confronting Berrit’s killer and finally getting to explain why she feels so driven to bring the killer to justice. This is the culmination of days of Ang continually being subjected to more and more stress from every direction. Something has gotta give—and indeed, many things do—but she always remains true to her core desire for justice.
It takes a long time to get to that moment, and I forgive anyone who doesn’t see what I see in Steeplejack. Ang is an incredibly poor detective. She doesn’t follow leads properly, is terrible at playing a part and blending in to other parts of societies, and she always bites off more than she can chew. As a result, her investigation is frequently snarled and tangled up in side-quests. This is a little frustrating, as a reader, even though I appreciate that Hartley does not give us a Mary Sue character around whom the entire world turns. The fact that Ang, while being a kickass climber and courageous person, generally bungles her detecting and has trouble taking care of a newborn child, shows the richness and roundness of her character.
Indeed, Steeplejack ultimately won me over for two reasons. First, Ang is such an interesting character. Second, Hartley’s depiction of race politics is more subtle than I expected.
I’ve already discussed Ang’s desire for justice and how terrible a detective she is. I appreciate that we get to see so many different sides of her character. On the one hand, she perseveres incredibly at solving Berrit’s murder. On the other hand, she eventually admits she made a mistake trying to raise Rahvey’s child (and I agree with her on this). The result is very interesting, for Hartley does something rare here, particularly in YA: we get to see a protagonist who both never gives up and quits at something. Kelly Jensen recently wrote about the importance of giving up, and I agree with her. Seeing Ang come to the realization that she is not ready to act as a mother, that she cannot both pursue Berrit’s murder investigation and halfheartedly care for a needy infant, is one of the most powerful parts of this book.
Race is the second powerful motif here. The book’s cover copy mentions the way three races cohabit in Bar-Selehm. And Ang gets into the consequences of being Lani fairly early on in the book. This being a YA novel, I was a little concerned that the book would beat us over the head with its ideas. I was concerned that the portrayals of the Mahweni would be a little too stereotypical. Fortunately, Hartley does a good job depicting the diversity within races as well as between them. We meet plenty of Lani, and they none of them see eye to eye. Similarly, the sharp divide between the rural Mahweni and urban creates a source of conflict as well. Despite this being a fairly short book, Hartley does an admirable job adding depth to all three races and their involvement in the city.
The same can be said about how Hartley portrays women. There is a diverse cast of female characters here. In addition to Ang, we have: Rahvey and Vestris, Ang’s sisters, each different from Ang and the other in a great many ways; Daria, sister to an important politician; Florihn, a Lani midwife with whom Ang finds herself at odds; and Sarah/Sureyna, a newspaper hawker whom Ang helps actually become a reporter. Each of these women has her own little story, her own goals and motives. They don’t always agree or want the same things. They talk to each other about stuff other than men (yes, this book passes the Bechdel test with flying colours). I particularly love Daria; Hartley introduces her seemingly as a background character, a well-bred lady there to sniff at Ang and look down at her. But then he gives her so much more life, such a great personality, and her relationship with Ang changes for the better as the two come to know each other.
My one disappointment when it comes to such relationships would be with the one between Ang and Vestris. This is only because Hartley makes so much of it while Vestris is off the page. I somewhat understand what he’s doing here, because the point is that Ang has romanticized her memories of Vestris as the glamorous, ne'er-do-wrong older sister, and reality is so very different. Nevertheless, because we don’t actually know Vestris very well until she finally shows up, the revelation regarding her true goals lacks the sucker-punch impact it was likely intended to have.
I’ll end by commenting that Steeplejack, in my opinion, is many things, but it is not steampunk (and I have a fairly broad definition of steampunk). This book does not feature impressive clockwork or steam-driven apparatus. As one blurb puts it, it’s kind of an alternative Victorian South Africa, which is an accurate description of the technology level. Aside from the weird mineral luxorite, there isn’t much in the way of magic or anything different from our world aside from different animals and geography. This is not a criticism or praise, mind you, just information for those who come to this hoping for steampunk (or are steering clear because they want to avoid steampunk!).
Steeplejack fits the drama of its exhilarating cover art: it is exciting and intense, and I really enjoyed it. I cannot wait to read whatever is coming next in this series.