How South Africa’s History Inspired A.J. Hartley’s Fantasy World

How South Africa’s History Inspired A.J. Hartley’s Fantasy World

A.J. Hartley’s young adult series blends fantasy, steampunk, mystery, and alternative history into one thrilling narrative. The adventure begins in Steeplejack and continues in Firebrand, on shelves now. It follows a girl named Ang as she investigates a murder and uncovers devious political plots. Here, Hartley shares the original inspiration for the series and reveals how the history of South Africa helped to inspire the city his novels are set in.

My earliest plans for what became the Steeplejack series evolved out of two competing book ideas: one a slightly steampunk-y adventure set in Victorian England about a boy who climbed chimneys, and the other a fantasy about a shape-shifting girl in a place which felt distinctly African. Once I realized that the best elements of both ideas could be combined into a single novel, Steeplejack was born. The two narrative strands had to be worked together thoroughly to provide a coherent world for the books. In the process, most of the fantasy elements fell away but my industrial, nineteenth-century city became palpably African.

To be more precise, the world became rooted in a magic-less fantasy world which resembles an alternate history take on nineteenth-century South Africa. Many of the specifics of this decision grew out of the fact that I had been planning to visit that country for a long time with my family, and we did indeed make the trip during the editing of the first book and the drafting of the second.

Firebrand, like Steeplejack, is set in Bar-Selehm, a largely independent city state loosely based on Durban circa 1870 but—and this is one of several crucial divergences from actual history—it imagines a world colonized by white settlers not during this period but three centuries earlier. The result is a steam-driven industrial city like Victorian Manchester with a long history of racial tensions and conflict which have calcified into something resembling apartheid, the state-sanctioned system of white minority rule, racial segregation, and discrimination which dominated the real-world South Africa from shortly after the end of World War Two until 1991. The result is a balance of the antique and the contemporary, so that the brand of fantasy in Firebrand does not provide the reader with an escape from reality as it shows that reality through a slightly distorted lens.

Why Durban instead of the more well-known Cape Town or Johannesburg? Back in the times of British Imperialism, a large number of Indians were brought to South Africa by British settlers as something like indentured servants to work on their plantations and build their cities. This diversity worked well with the backstory of Firebrand’s heroine—Anglet Sutonga—a member of Bar-Selehm’s third racial subgroup, the Lani: brown-skinned, impoverished, and caught between the ruling white class and the more numerous, indigenous black citizens. She is a unique outsider—a victim of discrimination while also being outside the terms by which such discrimination was customarily measured.

What makes the setting singular is that in combining these disparate historical elements, the books present a gas-lit, chimney-crammed city, surrounded by African bush: Jackals hunt after dark, vultures and eagles circle the great towers and chimneys, and packs of baboons and hyena haunt its hinterlands. Ang (as her friends call her) is a city girl, and the elephants and leopards which stalk the land only a few miles from the places she works are as much a terror to her as they might be to us. There is, as I can attest, no substitute for the unnerving thrill of lying awake in pitch blackness, listening to the chuffing roars of lions calling to each other on either side of your tent…

Bar-Selehm is a city informed and divided by its cultural and geographical place in the world, and as I ventured into writing Firebrand I realized the extent to which it had become an essential character in the series. As I worked I mapped its streets very carefully, always alert to the personalities of the town’s districts which drew heavily on the class and ethnicity of those who lived there. It was a city which—however troubled—represented a beacon to people seeking refuge from conflicts in other parts of the continent, a key part of Firebrand’s plot. The city is growing and evolving, straining the chains of colonial rule, but the powers that be don’t give up their control so easily, and politicians can always find ways to push back against the forces of social change.

We don’t need to look to Africa to see that.

Author A.J. Hartley is the bestselling writer of mystery/thriller, fantasy, historical fiction, and young adult novels. He was born in northern England, but has lived in many places including Japan, and is currently the Robinson Professor of Shakespeare studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, where he specializes in the performance history, theory and criticism of Renaissance English drama, and works as a director and dramaturg. He has more hobbies than is good for anyone, all of which you can learn more about by friending him (odious word) on Facebook, by following his blog and by checking in on the What’s Going On blog page.

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