Firebrand by A.J. HartleyAlternative Detective #2
Published on June 6, 2017 by Tor Teen
Genres: Fantasy, Mystery, Young Adult
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. When government plans for a secret weapon are stolen, their investigation leads right to the doorsteps of the city’s superexclusive social club, Elitus. Ang has a chance to catch the thief, but only if she can pass for a foreign princess. Her best chance to learn the ways of royalty lies in the aloof Dahria Willinghouse and the intense Madame Nahreem, a woman possessing high standards and unusual pets.
Yet Ang has other things on her mind. Refugees from the north are trickling into the city, but an ambitious politician is proposing extreme measures to get rid of them. 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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I expected a great deal from Firebrand after Hartley delivered a intricately woven story in Steeplejack and I’m happy to report that the sequel lived up to those expectations. The story picks up soon after the events of book 1 with Ang working for the politician Willinghouse as a private detective of sorts, and she’s about to have her work cut out for her.
On its own, Firebrand was almost a standalone in nature. There are some events which connect the two stories but if you were to read it without having read Steeplejack, you’d probably be okay (not that I recommend that course of action, but if it were to happen). It continues the expansion and development of a colonial world full of inequalities and political maneuvering, where racism abounds in all things, where the world is not one you might want to live in because it isn’t an escape from reality.
Bar-Selehm is fictional, yes, but the struggles these characters go through are very real, in our own history and even now. It gives Firebrand (and Steeplejack) almost a historical feel.
And Ang is a perfect person to share this world with. She’s still young but has experienced the hardships of the city as one of its Lani residents, shunned for their darker skin by the colonial whites. This plays a large part in how she goes about her investigation and, in the process, comes to terms with why uncovering the city’s secrets is so important to her. I would have liked a bit more depth with her character, more growth, as in both books she seems to focus in on one aspect of her life and that develops but the rest of her as a person remains fairly stagnant. The book centers around the world with Ang a player in its midst.
One thing I found… not odd, exactly, but it stood out, was the whole idea of romance in Ang’s world. There’s a hint of affection between her and a character from a previous book, and the ending of Firebrand hints once more at a different potential romance if the books are continued. But in all of those cases, Hartley makes it VERY clear that romance is not in the books for Ang. Which, hey, totally fine, these books don’t need it. HOWEVER, the way it’s handled is as if it’s this terribly bad thing which I found a bit unrealistic. It’s a small thing but caught my eye.
At the end of Firebrand, I was so busy putting together the puzzle pieces sprinkled throughout the story that I didn’t really get sucked into the action of the final scenes. This book isn’t heavy on action in the adventuring or explosion sense. Everything is behind the scenes, subtle, which I think takes skill as a writer to accomplish without giving the whole plot away. And I’ll say this: I didn’t guess the ending. Some elements, yes, but most was a surprise and that’s rare for me with young adult fiction.
Speaking of, I’m not sure I would necessarily classify this as young adult. It’s marketed from a teen imprint and features a younger protagonist but it reads much heavier, more what I would expect from adult fantasy. Plenty of genre cross-over opportunity there!
So yes, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Highly recommend checking out Steeplejack if you haven’t already before grabbing a copy of Firebrand. An excellent mix of mystery, political intrigue, masterful world-building, and a touch of fantasy.