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 Sutonga is a steeplejack in the city of Bar-Selehm, an
early-industrial fantasy-land somewhat reminiscent of Victorian South
Africa, where colonialism, race, and class are the central facts of
life for the city's residents.
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]
I'm in the midst of couple of weeks' worth of lectures, public events and teaching, and you can catch me in Toronto (for Word on the Street, Seeding Utopias and Resisting Dystopias and 6 Degrees); Newry, ME (Maine Library Association) and Portland, ME (in conversation with James Patrick Kelly).
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