Steeplejack is a steampunk fantasy mystery about a seventeen year old girl, Anglet Sutonga (or Ang) whose job it is to climb the tall chimneys in the city of Bar-Selehm and repair them. Her story begins as she finds the body of the young boy she is meant to apprentice—an event which changes her world in a big way.
This book really blew me away. Steeplejack touches on some heavy topics—race and ethnicity, tradition, familial bonds, trust and friendship, and class, but the book isn't a heavy commentary on those topics. They are woven into the story like jewels in a tapestry. They are given appropriate weight, but they do not make up the entire story.
The worldbuilding is excellently wrought and incredibly complex. Thankfully, we were not stuck with yet another fantasy novel with all white characters. In fact, Hartley's world is loosely based on South Africa. There are three major races represented in the book—Lani, which is Ang's race, a nomadic people, Mahweni, which is the native people of the land, and white. Right before this book came out, I read an article on Tor's website titled "Writing POC While White" in which Hartley describes his experiences in creating a diverse world with multiple races represented, his non-white wife and child and the daily microagressions they receive, and how NOT to write POC if you're a white person. Here's a great quote from the article,
"My impulse to write characters of color is political and stems from the belief that writers have an obligation to reflect the world they live in. People approach that challenge in a variety of ways, but I feel compelled to try in a small way to redress the historical bias which has taken white (and frequently male, and almost always straight) as the default position. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I am committed to giving diverse characters my very best shot, while simultaneously supporting marginalized writers in the telling of their own stories."
It's a great read, and one I believe is important if you're planning on reading his novel (and even if you're not!). One of my favorite quotes from the book is this one,
“You cannot simply take people’s land, property, freedom from them and then, a couple of hundred years later, when you have built up your industries and your schools and your armies, pronounce them equals. And even when you pretend it is true, you do not change the hearts of men, and a great deal of small horrors have to be ignored, hidden, if the myth of equality is to be sustained.”
Ang is a character after my own heart. Her personality is rich and well-rounded. She's strong but soft, protective but not motherly, beautiful but not Special Snowflake pretty. She revels in a challenge, and has an endearing way of picking up friends and/or enemies wherever she goes. Men and women are represented among a wide spectrum of personalities, from the plucky newspaper girl with a photographic memory to the prim, snotty rich girl she briefly partners with. The book reminded me of one of my favorite series of all time, Mistborn (the Wax & Wayne arc, not the original series). Another thing I loved about this book is a distinct lack of romance. There are a few hints for future books, but hardly any actual chemistry or flirting. I might be alone in this being a positive thing about the book, but it's refreshing sometimes to be able to read a book without feeling dirty afterwards (ahem, Sarah J. Maas).
There were a few things I struggled with slightly in this book, however. Ang makes a decision pretty early on in the book that I found to be unrealistic and frankly, quite dumb. Ultimately, this decision ended up not being a terrible one, but it surprised me, and not really in a good way. Also, while this book is rich with racial diversity, there was distinct lack of queer characters. I can think of at least one character that could have been queer without it changing anything about the story. It seems nitpicky, but for someone who put so much thought into the diversity of his book, it would have been nice to see this represented too. I'm not too disheartened however, and I look forward to any future characters and revelations of that sort.
Ultimately, this novel was an absolute knockout. Read it if you like a good mystery, love excellent fantasy worldbuilding, or are tired of reading about Special White Guys.