Thoughtfully imaginative and action-packed, Steeplejack is New York Times bestselling A. J. Hartley's YA debut set in a 19th-century South African fantasy world
2017 Thriller Awards Winner for Best Young Adult
YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection
Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Book
Booklist Top Ten YA in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror
“A richly realized world, an intensely likable character, and a mystery to die for." Cory Doctorow, New York Times-bestselling author
Seventeen-year-old Anglet Sutonga lives and works as a steeplejack in Bar-Selehm, a sprawling city known for its great towers, spires, and smokestacks – and even greater social disparities across race and class.
Ang’s world is turned upside-down when her new apprentice Berrit is murdered the same night that the city’s landmark jewel is stolen. Her search for answers behind his death exposes unrest in the streets and powerful enemies. But she also finds help from unexpected friends: a kindhearted savannah herder, a politician’s haughty sister, and a savvy newspaper girl. As troubles mount in Bar-Selehm, Ang must discover the truth behind both murder and theft soon – or else watch the city descend into chaos.
About the Author
A. J. HARTLEY is the international bestselling author of a dozen novels, including several archaeological thrillers, the Darwen Arkwright children's series, the Will Hawthorne fantasy adventures, novels based on Macbeth and Hamlet, and the Steeplejack series with Tor Teen. He is the Robinson Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare at UNC Charlotte.
Read an Excerpt
By A. J. Hartley
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 A. J. Hartley
All rights reserved.
THE LAST PERSON UP here never made it down alive, but there was no point thinking about that. Instead, I did what I always did — focused on the work, on the exact effort of muscle, the precise positioning of bone and boot that made it all possible. Right now, that meant pushing hard with my feet against the vertical surface of one wall while my shoulders strained against another, three feet away. I was horizontal, or as near as made no difference, the two brick faces forming an open shaft. If I relaxed even fractionally, I would die on the cobbles eighty feet below.
It really was that simple. You figured out what you needed to do to stay alive, and you did it, however your sinews screamed and your head swam, because giving in meant falling, and falling meant death.
I was working the old cement factory on Dyer Street, bypassing a rusted-out portion of the ladder to the roof on my way to rebuilding the chimney itself, the top rim of which had shed bricks till it looked like a broken tooth. I braced myself and inched my way up, brick by brick, till I reached the section of ladder that was still intact and tested it with one cautious hand.
Seems solid enough.
I pivoted and swung my body weight onto the lowest rung. For a moment, I was weightless in empty air, seesawing between life and death, and then I was safe on the ladder and climbing at ten times my previous speed.
I am Anglet Sutonga — Ang to those who think they know me — and I am a steeplejack, one of perhaps six or seven dozen who work the high places of Bar-Selehm. Some say I am the best since the Crane Fly himself, half a century ago. They might be right at that, but boasting — even if it stays in your head — makes you careless, and the one thing you really can't afford up there on the spires and clock towers and chimneys is carelessness. If I was good, it was because at seventeen I'd lived longer than most.
I moved easily over the roof to the point where the great round tower of the chimney reached up into the murky sky, tested the ladder, and began the slow climb to the top. Most of the really tall factory chimneys — the hundred- or two-hundred-footers — taper as they go, but they generally flare at the top, sometimes with an elaborate cap that juts out. These make for interesting climbing. You scale straight up; then you have to kick out and back, hanging half upside down over nothing, till you get over the cap and onto the upper rim.
There are no ladders at the top. If you leave them in place, the anchor holes in the mortar will trap moisture and crack the brick, so after each job, the steeplejack takes the ladders down and fills the holes. In this case, the ladder up to the cap was still there because two months ago, Jaden Saharry — the boy who had been working the chimney — fell, and no one had finished the job.
He was thirteen.
Most steeplejacks are boys. When they are young, it doesn't much matter what sex they are, because the work is just getting up inside the fireplaces of big houses and climbing around in the chimneys with a brush and scraper. It is all about being small and less likely to get stuck. But as the steeplejacks grow too big for domestic chimneys and graduate to the factory stacks, strength and agility become key. Then, since no one is looking for a bride who can outlift him, the girls are gradually given other things to do with their daylight hours. I was the only girl over fourteen in the Seventh Street gang, and I maintained my position there by climbing higher and working harder than the boys. And, of course, by not falling.
A new boy — Berrit — was supposed to be up here, waiting for me to show him the ropes, but there was no sign of him. Not a good start, though in truth, a part of me was relieved.
Today I wanted to be alone with my thoughts as much as possible.
Ten feet below the great brick overhang of the cap, I cleared the last mortared hole with my chisel and hooked one leg over the top of the ladder so I could use both hands. I took a wooden dowel from my pocket and pressed it into the cavity with the heel of my hand, then drew an iron spike — what we call a dog — from the satchel slung across my chest, positioned its tip against the protruding end of the dowel, and drove it in with three sharp blows of my lump hammer. The action meant straightening up and back, and I felt the strain in my belly muscles as I leaned out over the abyss. The ground, which I could see upside down if I craned back far enough, was a good two hundred feet below. Between me and it, a pair of vultures was circling, their black, glossy wings flashing with the pale light of dawn. I'd been higher, but there comes a point when a few more feet doesn't really make any difference. Dead is dead, whether you fall from fifty feet or three hundred.
The dog split the dowel peg and anchored in the brick. I tested it, then ran the rope to pull the last length of ladder into place, ignoring the tremble of fatigue in my arms as I hooked and lashed it firm. I took a breath, then climbed the newly positioned rungs, which leaned backwards over the chimney cap, angling my boots and gripping tightly with my hands. Carefully, like a trapeze artist, I hauled my body up, out, and over. I was used to being up high, but it was only when I had to navigate the chimney caps that I felt truly unnerved.
I didn't do the job just because I was good at it. I liked it up here by myself, high above the world: no Morlak looking over my shoulder, no boys testing how far they had to go before I threw a punch, no wealthy white folk curling their lips as if I put them off their breakfast.
I clambered over and sat inside the broad curve of the chimney's fractured lip, conscious of my heart slowing to something like normal as I gazed out across the city. From here I could count nearly a hundred chimneys like this one. Some taller, some squat, some square sided or stepped like pyramids, but mostly round like this, pointing up into the sky like great smoking guns, dwarfing the minarets and ornamental roofs that had survived from former ages.
It had once been beautiful, this bright, hot land rolling down to the sea. In places, it still was — wide and open savannahs where the sveld beasts grazed and the clavtar stalked; towering mountains, their topmost crags lost in cloud; and golden, palm-fringed beaches.
And sky. Great swaths of startling, empty blue where the sun burned high during the day, and night brought only blackness and a dense scattering of stars.
That's how it had been, and how it still was, not so very far away. But not here. Not in Bar-Selehm. Here were only iron and brick and a thick, pungent smoke that hung in a perpetual shroud over the pale city, shading its ancient domed temples and stately formal buildings. A couple of miles inland, down by the Etembe market, the air was ripe with animal dung, with the mouthwatering aroma of antelope flesh roasted over charcoal braziers, with cardamom, nutmeg, and pepper and, when the wind blew in from the west, with the dry but fertile fragrance of the tall grass that bent in the breeze all the way to the mountains. In the opposite direction was the ocean, the salt air redolent with fish and seaweed and the special tang of the sea. But here there was only smoke. Even all the way up the chimneys, above the city, and at what should have been the perfect vantage on the minarets of Old Town, and on the courts and monuments of the Finance District, I could see little through the brown fog, and though I wore a ragged kerchief over my mouth and nose, I could still taste it. When I spat, the slime was spotted with black flakes.
"If the work doesn't kill you," Papa used to say, "the air will."
I sat on the dizzying top, my legs hooked over the edge, and below me nothing for two hundred feet but the hard stone cobbles that would break a body like a hundred hammers.
I studied the cracked and blackened bricks around the chimney's rim. Three whole rows were going to have to come out, which meant ferrying hods of new bricks and mortar up and down the ladders. It was a week's work or more. I was faster than the others on the team, and though that generally earned me little but more work, I might make an extra half crown or two. Morlak didn't like me, but he knew what I was worth to him. And if I didn't do the job, if Sarn or Fevel took over, they'd mess it up, or miss half of what needed replacing, and we'd all suffer when the chimney cap crumbled.
I gazed out over the city again, registering ... something.
For a moment it all felt odd, wrong, and I paused, trying to process the feeling. It wasn't just my mood. It was a tugging at the edge of consciousness, like the dim awareness of an unfamiliar scent or a half memory. I moved into a squat, hands down on the sooty brick, eyes half-closed, but all I got was the fading impression that the world was somehow ... off.
I frowned, then reached back and worked the tip of my chisel into the crumbled mortar. Steeplejacks don't have much time for imagination except, perhaps, when they read, and since I'm the only one I know who does that, I'm not really representative. Three sharp blows with the hammer, and the brick came free, splintering in the process, so that a flake flew out and dropped into the great black eye of the chimney.
I cursed. Morlak would let me know about it if I filled the grate at the bottom with debris. I gathered the other remains and scooped them into my satchel, then repositioned the chisel and got on with the job.
No one chooses to be a steeplejack. A few are poor whites and orphans, some are blacks who fall foul of the city and cannot return to a life among the herds on the savannah, but most are Lani like me: lithe and brown, hazel eyed, and glad of anything that puts food in their mouths. A few men like Morlak — it is always men — make it into adulthood and run the gangs, handing off the real work to the kids while they negotiate the contracts and count the profits.
I didn't mind it so much. The heights didn't bother me, and the alternative was scrubbing toilets, working stalls in the market, or worse. At least I was good at this. And on a clear day, when the wind parted the smog, Bar-Selehm could still be beautiful.
I set the hammer down. The satchel was getting full and I had only just begun. Standing up, I turned my back toward the ladder, and for a moment, I felt the breeze and steadied myself by bending my knees slightly. In that instant it came again, that sense that the world was just a little wrong. And now I knew why.
There was something missing.
Normally, my view of the city from hereabouts would be a gray-brown smear of rooftops and chimney spikes, dark in the gloom, save where a single point of light pricked the skyline, bathing the pale, statuesque structures of the municipal buildings with a glow bright and constant as sunlight. Up close it was brilliant, hard to look at directly, even through the smoke of the chimneys. By night it kept an entire block and a half of Bar-Selehm bright as day, and even in the densest smogs it could be seen miles out to sea, steering sailors better than the cape point lighthouse.
It was known as the Beacon. The light was housed in a crystal case on top of the Trade Exchange, a monument to the mineral on which the city had been built, and a defiantly public use of what was surely the most valuable item in the country. The stone itself was said to be about the size of a man's head, and was therefore the largest piece of luxorite ever quarried. It had been there for eighty years, over which time its light had barely diminished. Its value was incalculable.
And now it was gone. I strained my eyes, disbelieving, but there could be no doubt. The Beacon was not dimmed or obscured by the smoke. It was gone, and with that, the world had shifted on its axis, a minute adjustment that altered everything. Even for someone like me, who was used to standing tall in dangerous places, the thought was unsettling. The Beacon was a constant, a part of the world that was just simply there. That it wasn't felt ominous. But it also felt right, as if the day should be commemorated with darkness.
I touched the coin I wore laced round my neck, then took a long breath. There was still no sign of Berrit, and my satchel needed emptying.
After moving to the top of the ladder, I reached one leg over, then the other. There was a little spring in the wood, but the dogs I had hammered into the brickwork were tight, and the ladder felt sure under my weight. Even so, I was careful, which was just as well, because I was halfway over the perilous cap when someone called out.
The suddenness of it up there in the silence startled me. One hand, which had been moving to the next rung, missed its mark, and for a moment, I was two-thirds of the way to falling. I righted myself, grabbed hold of the ladder, and stared angrily down, expecting to see Berrit, the new boy, made stupid by lateness.
But it wasn't, and my annoyance softened.
It was Tanish, a Lani boy, about twelve, who had been with the gang since his parents died three years ago. He was scrambling recklessly up, calling my name still, his face open, excited.
"Stop," I commanded. "Wait for me on the roof."
He looked momentarily wounded, then began to climb down.
Tanish was the closest thing I had to an apprentice. He followed me around, learning the tricks of the trade and how to survive in the gang, gazing at me with childish admiration. He was a sweet kid, too sweet for Seventh Street, and sometimes it was my job to toughen him up.
"Never call up to me like that," I spat as soon as we were both at the foot of the chimney. "Idiot. I nearly lost my grip."
"Not you, Ang," the boy answered, flushed and sheepish. "You'll never fall."
"Not till I do," I said bleakly. "What are you doing here? I thought you were working the clock tower on Dock Street."
"Finished last night," said Tanish, pleased with himself. "Superfast, me."
"And it still tells the right time?"
Tanish beamed. Last time he had been working a clock with Fevel, they had left the timepiece off by three and a half hours. When the owner complained, they climbed back up and reset it twice more, wildly wrong both times, too embarrassed to admit that neither one of them could tell time. Eventually Morlak had done them a diagram and they had had to climb up at double the usual speed to set the mechanism. Even so, they had left the clock four minutes slow, and its chime still tolled the hour after every other clock in the city, so that the gang jokingly referred to Tanish Time, which meant, simply, late.
"Well?" I demanded, releasing the hair I keep tied back while I work. It fell around my shoulders and I ran my fingers roughly through it. "What's so important?"
"It's your sister," said Tanish, unable to suppress his delight that he was the one to bring the news. "The baby. It's time."
I closed my eyes for a moment, my jaw set. "Are they sure?" I asked. "I wasted half of yesterday sitting around out there —"
"The runner said they'd brought the midwife."
Today of all days, I thought. Of course it would be today.
"Right," I said, half to myself. "Tell Morlak I'm going."
My pregnant sister, Rahvey, was three years my senior. We did not like each other.
"Morlak says you can't go," said Tanish. "Or —" He thought, trying to remember the gang leader's exact words. "— if you do, you better be back by ten and be prepared to work the late shift."
That was a joke. Rahvey and her husband, Sinchon, lived in a shanty on the southwest side of the city, an area traversed by minor tributaries of the river Kalihm and populated by laundries, water haulers, and dyers. It was known as the Drowning, and it would take me an hour to get there on foot.
Well, there was no avoiding it. I would have to deal with Morlak when I got back.
Morlak was more than a gang leader. In other places, he might have been called a crime lord, and crossing him was, as the Lani liked to say, "hazardous to the health." But since he provided Bar-Selehm's more respectable citizens with a variety of services, he was called simply a businessman. That gave him the kind of power he didn't need to reinforce with a stick and brass knuckles, and ordinarily I would not dream of defying him.
But family was family: another infuriating Lani saying.
I had two sisters: Vestris, the eldest and most glamorous, who I barely saw anymore; and Rahvey, who had raised me while Papa worked, a debt she would let me neither pay nor forget.
"Take my tools back for me," I said, unslinging the satchel.
"You're going?" said Tanish.
"Seems so," I answered, walking away. I had taken a few steps before I remembered the strangeness I had felt up there on the chimney and stopped to call back to him. "Tanish?"
The boy looked up from the satchel.
"What happened to the Beacon?" I asked.
The boy shrugged, but he looked uneasy. "Stolen," he said.
"That's what Sarn said. It was in the paper."
"Who would steal the Beacon?" I asked. "What would be the point? You couldn't sell it."
Tanish shrugged again. "Maybe it was the Grappoli," he said. Everything in Bar-Selehm could be blamed on the Grappoli, our neighbors to the northwest. "I'll go with you."
"Don't you have to get to work?"
Excerpted from Steeplejack by A. J. Hartley. Copyright © 2016 A. J. Hartley. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the kind of book I want more of in YA fantasy. Steeplejack was entertaining and beautifully written in a city colonized and still dealing with the effects of that, as seen through its structure and its people. Though considered young adult, this book reads a lot more like an adult fantasy in how dense and intricate it is and I am ALL there for it! I think what first sold me was the world and the writing. Woven seamlessly together, they created a rich and vibrant city of Bar-Selehm, a city with diverse residences and very distinct cultures attempting to fit together in this single space. Did I mention it’s inspired by South Africa? How awesome is that?! One of the aspects of Steeplejack that set it apart from other YA fantasies I’ve read is that it takes on the topic of race and makes it a core idea throughout the entire book. How the characters act, the choices they make, it all ties to their cultural and racial backgrounds and I liked that this was both a large part of the world but a smaller part of the story. And by that I mean that everything was written in such a way that this was the world. It didn’t feel out of place or thrust upon the plot to make a point. It simply… was, and it worked while still making a point about the class and race differences, as well as how the characters fit within the world and fought their societal standing. All of this would be nothing, however, without Anglet Sutonga, Ang for short. Told through her eyes in first person point-of-view, you get to live the daily life of a steeplejack, though not your typical seventeen-year-old. She’s strong and courageous, caught between two worlds and constantly at odds of how to go forth in the world. But she’s still quite flawed and I wondered why someone like her would make some of the decisions she did, and she’s a bit “big” for the world, being one of the best steeplejacks out there, but I didn’t mind this too much by the end, if I’m being totally honest. I loved that her family had a lot of page time and their relationships, between her and her two sisters, her former community, her deceased father, they all made up a part of her and continued to impact her life. I feel like families aren’t really a big part of fantasy, acting more as a plot device than a constant presence in the protagonist’s life as in the case of Ang. It was refreshing, to say the least, and used the character’s background to bring more to the story rather than relying on unrelated subplots or a romance. Oh right, by the way, for those of you who want to read more fantasy WITHOUT romance (I know you’re out there), this is the book for you. Combined, this young steeplejack and this beautifully diverse and intricate world create a mystery packed full of action and secrets. I’m really excited to see where her adventures take her in the next book, Firebrand, and HIGHLY recommend y’all grab a copy of Steeplejack before the sequel comes out!
Ang Sutonga is the one person who can find her way from the depths of the Drowning's misery to the top of Bar-Selehm's city spires and solve the mysteries of a young boy's death and the theft of the city's greatest treasure. What I liked "The last person up here never made it down alive, but there was no point thinking about that." What a terrific first line! This is great storytelling. A.J.'s use of language is smooth and expansive, poetic and philosophical by turns, and yet completely draws the reader in to the physical world and Ang's thoughts as she finds herself and her city in increasingly desperate situations. The mystery and danger feel very real, as Ang uncovers piece after piece of the puzzle. I particularly appreciated A.J.'s subtle inclusion of the natural world throughout the story. Ang is a city girl and says herself that she is uncomfortable around large animals, which are seen and heard throughout the story as she moves through the city and countryside. A real and imagined menagerie, including hippos and giraffes in the wild, and jackals and mongoose living in the old city, as well as weancats and pink rollers (birds) that are deftly described usually in passing, an integral part of life in and around Bar-Selehm. What I didn’t like To be honest, although I loved the worldbuilding, especially the descriptions of the natural world and the cultures, there are a lot of storylines weaving together, and sometimes I had a hard time keeping the cast of characters straight. And the one storyline that felt dissatisfying to me was around Ang's newborn niece, Kalla, which is the only part of the story that felt unrealistic from the beginning. However, it included several key elements of storytelling and character development, and was emotionally important to Ang's narrative. Summary I thoroughly enjoyed Steeplejack and look forward to the next Alternative Detective story from A.J. Hartley, whether it tells more of Ang's story or others. This is a fast-paced, engaging read, with a satisfying mystery and lots of cultural and personal narratives woven together in a fascinating tapestry. I give Steeplejack 4-1/2 out of five stars.
Anglet Sutonga, 17, is one, if not the, best steeplejack in Bar-Selehm. Her job involves climbing factories and tall buildings to repair chimneys and the like. She is part of the Lani community, who are mostly in poverty. When Ang finds her new apprentice dead and hears a historical icon stolen in one night, she suspects the two might be connected, and a sneaky politician hires her to look into it. With danger around every corner, Ang will have to solve the mystery before more lives are lost. STEEPLEJACK by A.J. Hartley bursts with rich imagery and world building. Bar-Selehm is a city in a historical South African fantasy world with three primary communities: the white Feldish, the native Mahweni, and the Lani. One major element of the story is how the communities and races interact together and how Ang feels she has no place as she doesn’t adhere to the more traditional Lani customs. The descriptions of the city and the landscape are beautiful, and even with all the smoke and chaos in the city, it clearly feels like a home to Ang as she knows every roof. The detective/mystery plot is well layered and holds more than one unexpected twist. The story gets even better as Ang teams up with a newspaper girl and a politician’s sister to figure out some of the clues. All are highly intelligent and savvy, and their dialogues are a joy. Ang’s sisters also play important roles, and the strained family relationships are written well and realistically. Luscious world building, a tense mystery, and a smart heroine combine to make STEEPLEJACK an absolute thrill ride.
This is one of the richest books I've read this year. It's rich with the world, mystery and politics. All with a female MC that mentally and physically strong. She's smart, she's driven, she's loyal to her family, she's a pretty incredible character. There is so much in the book that it's hard to say exactly what genre it is. I would say it's mostly a mystery. We follow Ang as she tries to solve the mystery of a boy's death and the missing Beacon of the city. I had heard this was fantasy, so I was hoping for some magic, but the glowing stone is the only somewhat magical aspect of the book. And while the stone glows, there is not much other information about it's properties other than it is a highly coveted rock in this world. This is one of my rare issues with the book, I just wanted some more fantastical elements. However, there was so much more that kept me going and not wanting to put the book down. There was the mystery of course, but there was also racial dynamics going on within the city and those that live in and around it. The story starts in a world of an industrial city. There isn't technology in this world, it seemed historical in a way but still had some advances. The description of the world was so well done and this book was filled with a such rich descriptions that I felt the city building up around me, or felt myself climbing buildings like Ang. The society in which it takes place felt real, I wanted to jump in and do something a few times throughout the book. I was always rooting for Ang, for her people, for those that were helping her. So many different aspects of this book had me turning pages almost faster than I could read them because I wanted to see what happened next. Ang was such a great heroine to follow throughout the story. We see her at the beginning, a girl just trying to get by doing her job, but by the end she grows stronger, uses her smarts, and becomes so much more than just a girl trying to get by. I enjoyed watching her grow throughout the story. The characters around Ang were so thorough and well done that they felt as real as the city. If you're looking for something that you've never read before... If you're looking for a unique city filled with politics... If you're looking for a good mystery... If you're looking for a strong heroine... Please pick up and read Steeplejack! :) *Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not influence my feelings on the book. All opinions are my own.