Steeplejack: diverse YA fantasy driven by expert plotting
AJ Hartley's new YA series opens with Steeplejack, a whodunnit whose unlikely and welcome hard-boiled detective is a young woman who has to beat class and race discrimination as well as the bad guys.
Anglet's adventures begin when she climbs down from a chimney in search of the young boy she's meant to be apprenticing and finds him dead -- murdered -- at the base of the building. At first, Anglet can't get anyone interested in the death of an underclass urchin -- not least because the city's great and good are up in arms over the daring theft of the Beacon, a chunk of glowing, priceless rock that is the symbol of the city's wealth, derived as it is from the lucrative trade in rare, glowing minerals.
But before long, Anglet finds herself in an unlikely alliance with some of the richest, most powerful people in Bar-Selehm, who, like her, believe there is more than meets the eye to the theft of the beacon and the murder of her protege -- and that the two might be linked. They perceive that Anglet can go places and ask questions that are off-limits to them, and strike an arrangement with her to act as their agent and detective and find out what's really going on.
As this adventure unfolds, Anglet also wrestles with problems of family, duty, race and gender. The fagin who runs her gang of steeplejacks tries to rape her, and swears vengeance when she cripples him with a near-killing blow from a climbing spike. Her sister births a fourth girl, and, by the customs of her people, must surrender the child to a grim and dismal orphanage, because of gender bias against daughters. Other young boys in the steeplejack gang who stick up for her are in harm's way, and have to be protected and dissuaded from charging headlong into danger.
And in the city, the drums of war are beating. The theft of the Beacon is blamed on a rival city-state, and Bar-Selehm's whites are baying for blood, while the colonized indigenous black people are made suspect for their unwillingness to serve as cannon-fodder in a battle over a precious stone whose value they have no share in.
It's a story that weaves together complicated questions of race and gender, culture and tradition, class and justice, while remaining true to the form of the hard-boiled thriller, albeit one where the heroine is a young homeless girl who's adopted a newborn infant. This works so well that the book serves not only as an outstanding entertainment, but also an existence proof of the possibilities of diverse fantasy and a stinging rebuke to the lazy argument that all the interesting stuff in medieval or Victorian settings happened to white men, meaning that no real drama is possible unless they're center-stage.
Steeplejack [AJ Hartley/Tor Teen]
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