A steeplejack is a craftsman who climbs buildings, chimneys, and steeples in order to carry out repairs or maintenance. It’s a dangerous trade, but it allows those who dare to scale the heights the ability to see out over the city, perspective that few of us have. Hartley’s steeplejack is Ang Sutonga, who works above the city of Bar-Selehm, the industrial capital of an alternative Victorian South Africa. The city—built on the mining and trade of a mineral called luxorite—is an exotic, yet familiar world that is tense with racial and economical conflict.
As the story opens, the Beacon—the city’s icon made of the largest piece of precious luxorite—is stolen. This news looms over other events, such as the murder of a young apprentice steeplejack and the birth of Ang’s fourth niece, who she must now care for. As the novel unfolds, Ang finds herself embroiled in a murder mystery, political corruption, and social injustice. In order to survive, Ang must negotiate the traditions of her own ethnic class, the death-threats of her former boss, and a complicated romance. Hartley gives readers a richly detailed world and a riveting mystery.
But most impressive is his creation of his heroine, Ang, who breaks the conventional mold of her world—and ours. Ang is captivating as a protagonist, as she embodies a street-smart young woman of color who refuses to be defined by her society’s limitations of her. She lives at the margins of her world, and works high above its roofs, allowing her the perspective needed to not only see the corruption of Bar-Selehm, but to disrupt it. Steeplejack is intended for a young adult audience, but it is a tale for all as it demonstrates how alternative historical fictions provide the possibility to re-imagine history from the perspective of those who are not traditionally featured in conventional Victorian fiction.