Series: Alternative Detective #1
Published by Tor Teen on June 14, 2016
Genres: fantasy, mystery
Amazon • Goodreads
Seventeen-year-old Anglet Sutonga, Ang for short, repairs the chimneys, towers, and spires of Bar-Selehm, the ethnically-diverse industrial capital of a land resembling Victorian South Africa. The city was built on the trade of luxorite, a priceless glowing mineral. When the Beacon, a historical icon made of luxorite, is stolen, it makes the headlines. But no one cares about the murder of Ang's new apprentice, Berrit—except for Josiah Willinghouse, an enigmatic young politician, who offers Ang a job investigating Berrit's death. On top of this, Ang struggles with the responsibility of caring for her sister's newborn child.
As political secrets unfold and racial tensions surrounding the Beacon's theft rise, Ang navigates the constricting traditions of her people, the murderous intentions of her former boss, and the conflicting impulses of a fledgling romance. With no one to help her except a savvy newspaper girl and a kindhearted herder from the savannah, Ang must resolve the mysterious link between Berrit and the missing Beacon before the city is plunged into chaos.
It’s interesting to ponder what qualifies as a fantasy and what exactly makes that so. You can have fantasy that takes place in whole other realms replete with magic and magical creatures. You can have fantasy that places in our very own world, but with elements of the wondrous. Then you have works like Steeplejack, in which there is no magic (or none yet presented) but the world it takes place in is not our own, and so it is a fantasy work.
It just occurred to me while reading how interesting the many varietals of fantasy works are. This is a book that reads very much like a historical crime novel that takes place in 19th century South Africa. But it is not 19th century South Africa, only a land in an unknown world that has many echoes and similarities to it. Does this seem like a complaint? Not at all! I very much enjoy the book and its setting and its fantasy world. The reading of it just gave me food for thought on what makes a fantasy novel. Certainly there might be folks out there who think that “fantasy” is not for them, but maybe having the genre broken down in this way can help them to find works that more align with their tastes.
Anyway! This is a mystery novel wrapped in historical fiction wrapped in a fantasy world. With a good heaping of social justice themes thrown into the mix. A country’s national treasure goes missing, and a young boy is murdered on the same day. Finding how the two events are related is our heroine, Ang’s, mission. The story sets out to solve a murder and uncover a political conspiracy, but it is also a vehicle for exploration of the social, race, and class differences in this tense melting pot of a country. There is a palpable sense throughout that time is running out, not only for Ang to solve the mystery, but to do so before the pot boils over and into war.
Ang is one of the Lani, a people brought with them (unwillingly) by the white Feldish colonizers when they displaced the native Mahweni from their lands. Why? For luxorite, a diamond-like stone with brilliance far surpassing any diamonds in this world. The luxorite mines have long since dried up, making the gems and their trade all the more precious. As a steeplejack, Ang has been making a meager living climbing the rooftops and chimneys of Bar-Selehm cleaning or doing other maintenance.
The tension in this story comes from all sides. Ang feels the pressure of what it means to be Lani, to follow the ways of her people (with which she disagrees on many points), or to make her own way in a racist society where the cards are stacked against her. The situation is also tense between the black Mahweni and the ruling white elites. And then there are the ways in which all three groups clash.
Ang is a wonderful character. Smart, loyal, good hearted, and resourceful. There are often hard decisions to be made, and no right or good outcomes. But Ang has the courage to make these hard decisions. I especially enjoyed Ang using her resourcefulness to take what could have been a “mean girl” plot and disarming it. An imperious “society girl” acquaintance who at first treats Ang with disregard is not made out to be an enemy for Ang to resent. Instead, Ang finds a way to utilize the girl in her sleuthing. From wary enemy to ally in what could have been another example of the overused mean girl trope. In fact, the cast is varied and diverse with Ang gathering friends and allies from all social and racial spheres, as well as a balanced mix of genders.
There is really no romance in this book to speak of. At times it feels like the author is perhaps offering up Ang’s employer, Josiah Willinghouse (she seems to have a maybe-crush on him, but again, this is so fleetingly touched upon) as a potential interest. Ang’s friendship with a Mahweni boy, Mnenga, also seems at times that he could also potentially become a future avenue for romance. But in both cases there is really just the barest hint of a flicker. Romance is very far from being any sort of priority in this story. The incredible world building, the fully fleshed and sympathetic characters, and the endurance of the mystery all contributed to making it so that I didn’t really mind all that much at not having any romance!
This is very smart political fantasy/mystery, and an impeccably paced one. Every scene moves the plot along with either breathtaking action or heart pounding tension. The ending was maybe just a little too clean and tidy for me, but I can forgive the book this considering the strength of the incredible world building, plot, and character work. The richness and depth of the world created in this first book leaves plenty to explore if this should become a series. And please, books, let it be so!
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.