Firebrand: Evil has many faces

Firebrand by A.J. HartleyFirebrand by A.J. Hartley YA fantasy book reviewsFirebrand by A.J. Hartley

Firebrand (2017) is the second of A.J. Hartley’s STEEPLEJACK series, following shortly after 2016’s Steeplejack and continuing the story of Anglet Sutonga, a young woman with a very strong sense of justice and a knack for finding herself in trouble. Firebrand builds on the events of Steeplejack, and as a result, this review will contain very mild spoilers for Steeplejack.

Firebrand takes places three months after Steeplejack’s ending, providing enough time for Anglet’s life to undergo some alterations and for her friends Sureyna and Dahria to experience changes of their own, but not so much that she or they are totally different people. The novel opens with a thrilling rooftop chase in pursuit of a famous cat burglar as he escapes the scene of a crime; tracking him puts Anglet in the path of a dangerous killer and sets her on an entirely new trail, one leading straight to an extremely exclusive club. Its members are segregated from the rest of Bar-Selehm by their wealth and race, and even separate themselves by gender within the club’s walls. These are all very powerful men, each with much to gain by maintaining the current status quo.

And yet, trouble rears its head — Mahweni refugees flood into the city from the northern reaches of Feldesland, fleeing war between drug cartels and armed forces from the neighboring country, Grappoli. Political unrest at home is fomented by white racial purists who make baseless claims about the detrimental effects of living in a diverse society and providing equal opportunity to all people. There are rumors of a nascent suffragette movement. The cat burglar in question pilfered the plans for an experimental type of weapon, but to what end, and to whose profit?

Anglet, no longer a steeplejack, now occupies a grey quasi-legal space as a private investigator/spy in the employ of Josiah Willinghouse, a lesser member of Bar-Selehm’s Parliament and Dahria’s older brother. She has contacts within the police force that are glad to work with her in any way they can, on the strength of her work featured in Steeplejack. She’s also maintained an alliance within the military, as well as with one of her former steeplejack comrades, who are both able to provide much-needed assistance or information as the needs arise. And, to my great relief, her friends and family from Steeplejack get more page time in Firebrand, even as new characters like the forbidding Madame Nahreem and friendly Bertha are introduced.

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Book 1

That said, Firebrand is still very much Anglet’s story. Once again, she risks life, limb, and personal dignity to unravel this newest mystery. Her outrage at the mistreatment of the refugees is both appropriate and infectious, and spurs her to make some occasionally reckless choices, but her heart is always in the right place. Steeplejack introduced readers to Anglet in her comfort zone — the rooftops and twisting alleys of Bar-Selehm — but Firebrand often takes her to places she’d never dream of going, like country estates and swanky mansions, as she chases leads and hints. Wisely, Hartley examines her discomfort in these situations, even allowing her to enjoy their appeal before questioning how much she can let herself change without risking a total loss of self. It’s an interesting and mature approach to a complicated issue, with no easy answers.

The world-building is superb, taking cues from historical precedent as well as modern problems. There are echoes of the American Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, the global rise of nationalism and fascism in the early twentieth century, and its attempts at resurgence in the twenty-first century. Parliament members like Norton Richter, who leads the Heritage party, frequently makes statements about “racial purity” or cleansing Bar-Selehm of its “impurities,” i.e., undesirable persons, that made my skin crawl and my blood boil. Hartley peppers the book with greedy, selfish people, but he also includes people who are drawn into terrible schemes either against their will or without their knowledge; after all, not every villain has a twirling moustache or a snickering dog. Through the efforts of Anglet and her friends, Hartley makes the point that one must always try to do what’s right, even in the most difficult situations — an important message, especially when considering the target audience.

I had concerns that Firebrand would rehash many of Steeplejack’s best features without standing on its own merits, but those concerns were unfounded. The mystery at the heart of the plot, again, is well-written, and its resolution is all the more critical because of the number of lives that could be affected if Anglet fails in any way. Her continued evolution from unknown steeplejack to semi-respectable private investigator is fascinating, particularly as her personal relationships evolve alongside her internal self.

The STEEPLEJACK books are meant to be read in sequence — there’s a specific interaction near the end of this novel which won’t make any sense otherwise — and it’s my understanding that Firebrand is the second instalment of a planned trilogy, but in no way does it feel like a bridge novel or a weak middle chapter. I’ll be waiting on tenterhooks for the next book! Highly recommended.

Published June 6, 2017. New York Times bestselling author A. J. Hartley returns to his intriguing, 19th-century South African-inspired fantasy world in Firebrand, another adrenaline-pounding adventure. Once a steeplejack, Anglet Sutonga is used to scaling the heights of Bar-Selehm. Nowadays she assists politician Josiah Willinghouse behind the scenes of Parliament. The latest threat to the city-state: Government plans for a secret weapon are stolen and feared to be sold to the rival nation of Grappoli. The investigation leads right to the doorsteps of Elitus, one of the most exclusive social clubs in the city. In order to catch the thief, Ang must pretend to be a foreign princess and infiltrate Elitus. But Ang is far from royal material, so Willinghouse enlists help from the exacting Madam Nahreem. Yet Ang has other things on her mind. Refugees are trickling into the city, fleeing Grappoli-fueled conflicts in the north. A demagogue in Parliament is proposing extreme measures to get rid of them, and she soon discovers that one theft could spark a conflagration of conspiracy that threatens the most vulnerable of Bar-Selehm. Unless she can stop it.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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