STEEPLEJACK, the first book in a new young adult series by A.J. Hartley, is, in the simplest terms, a fantasy novel. Although fantasy is the genre it has been wedged into, I will tell you now that it is much bigger than that. STEEPLEJACK is a fantastic detective-noir story set in a steampunk South Africa. It has all the trappings of a great detective story, including a main character with only good intentions and a bad reputation, a dead innocent in the opening, a wide-spread web of conspiracy, fast-talking interrogations and shady dealings --- just to get any interested parties ready!
"Hartley’s fantasy novel creates a remarkably engaging narrative in a remarkably dirty world. With a fictional world so grounded in reality...it is hard to remember that this doesn’t take place in our own universe."
In STEEPLEJACK, readers are introduced to the tough and savvy Anglet Sutonga --- Ang for short. Ang is 17-years-old and cursed. According to cultural tradition, as the third child in her family, Ang is not only a curse, but potentially a plague on her family. Ang copes with this through borderline estrangement from her sisters, the oldest of which has completely disappeared from the family long before the narrative takes place. Ang works for a starvation wage as a steeplejack. A steeplejack’s job is to scale tall buildings and straddle the side of chimneys in order to repair weakening brick & mortar --- and Ang is the best there is.
STEEPLEJACK opens with Ang out on a typical job. Ang was expecting to work a chimneys with a new hire from one of the other outfits --- gangs --- in town, Berritt. The trouble is that Ang finishes her shift and sees no sign of this new kid until she comes back down to street level, where she finds him stabbed and left for dead. After Ang gets police to investigate, she is swept up into a web of deceit, greed and corruption that climbs all the way to the highest levels of government.
Hartley’s fantasy novel creates a remarkably engaging narrative in a remarkably dirty world. With a fictional world so grounded in reality --- there be no dragons here --- it is hard to remember that this doesn’t take place in our own universe. Even with a few elements of what I will describe as “simple” magic nothing ever feels out of place or lacking in common sense. There is this element in the novel introduced from the start called Luxorite. Luxorite is a glowing, rare and very limited precious stone that is essentially employed only to advance the plot. Its importance is stressed throughout so I never once questioned why it glows or why the light in it fades. As a reader it is just clear that it is important, and this goes for every element of the book. Every detail matters and therefore nothing feels out of place.
I never once had to suspend my disbelief or remind myself that this was fiction, which I am going to emphasize can happen even in the best fantasy. This felt more like historical fiction. I felt like the unthinkable tragedies of the real world could strike at any moment, but Anglet Sutonga was right there to stop it. This is the first book of a planned series, and I am brimming with excitement for the next one.
Reviewed by Matthew Burbridge on June 9, 2016