Review: Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley

Friday, June 10, 2016
Title: Steeplejack
Author: A.J. Hartley
Genre: fantasy, steampunk
Series: Alternative Detective #1
Pages: 336
Published: expected June 14 2016
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3/5

Seventeen-year-old Anglet Sutonga, Ang for short, repairs the chimneys, towers, and spires of Bar-Selehm, the ethnically-diverse industrial capital of a land resembling Victorian South Africa. The city was built on the trade of luxorite, a priceless glowing mineral. When the Beacon, a historical icon made of luxorite, is stolen, it makes the headlines. But no one cares about the murder of Ang's new apprentice, Berrit—except for Josiah Willinghouse, an enigmatic young politician, who offers Ang a job investigating Berrit's death. On top of this, Ang struggles with the responsibility of caring for her sister's newborn child.

As political secrets unfold and racial tensions surrounding the Beacon's theft rise, Ang navigates the constricting traditions of her people, the murderous intentions of her former boss, and the conflicting impulses of a fledgling romance. With no one to help her except a savvy newspaper girl and a kindhearted herder from the savannah, Ang must resolve the mysterious link between Berrit and the missing Beacon before the city is plunged into chaos.

There were a few things about this that I liked a great deal, some things that perplexed me the entire novel; which is probably why I am left feeling like I should like this more but just can't quiiite commit to above a 3-star level of enthusiasm. A. J. Hartley's Steeplejack is an inventive, inclusive, and original take on blending both mystery and scifi elements, but it is also one that stumbles occasionally in its headlong rush to the finish.

To both Steeplejack's benefit and disadvantage, the world Hartley has envisioned here is like nothing else I've seen. It allows the author to shape Victorian South Africa into something wholly new and unique; a world ripe for exploration and steampunkian invention. However, there's just not enough detail for me to really see Bar-Selehm the way that Anglet does. There's more solid foundation for how Anglet functions as a steeplejack in a crimegang than about the city they're based in.

This is a fast-paced read and one that covers a lot of ground both metaphorically and literally in its relatively short 330 pages. Anglet is an adept, capable, (diverse!) narrator for the speed at which everything progresses once the plot engages; she's aware and smart, a girl just doing her best in a restless city. The author has a good handle on the mystery aspect of the novel and keeps the antagonist a twisty question mark for quite the duration. It's tense and atmospheric: Anglet is racing against the clock in a city on the brink and that makes for an exciting read.

As it is the beginning of a promising and creative new series, I am more willing than usual to overlook the issues I had while reading Steeplejack. There's a lot of cleverness in this story and I think the inevitable sequel will be able to capitalize on both this ending's momentum and the further unexplored potential of the series premise. I also appreciated the straightforward way the author explored class and race, even against such a dire backdrop. 

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