REVIEW: Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

This post originally appeared on 80 Books Blog.

3 out of 5 stars   ★★★☆☆

February 7, 2017
Tor Books


Welcome to Amberlough City, the illustrious but corrupt cosmopolitan beacon of Gedda. The radical One State Party—nicknamed the Ospies—is gaining popular support to unite Gedda’s four municipal governments under an ironclad, socially conservative vision.

Not everyone agrees with the Ospies’ philosophy, including master spy Cyril DePaul and his lover Aristide Makricosta, smuggler and emcee at the popular Bumble Bee Cabaret. When Cyril’s cover is blown on a mission, however, he must become a turncoat in exchange for his life. Returning to Amberlough under the Ospies’ watchful eye, Cyril enters a complex game of deception. One of his concerns is safeguarding Aristide, who refuses to let anyone—the crooked city police or the homophobic Ospies—dictate his life.

Enter streetwise Cordelia Lehane, top dancer at the Bee and Aristide’s runner, who could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means—and people—necessary. Including each other.

If I could describe this book in one word, it would be “lush.” The writing is richly detailed, the author took the time to establish the environment and atmosphere in a way that was immensely satisfying to read. Just the introduction to the spy protagonist, Cyril, establishes the setting and tone for the rest of the novel: 

“In a second-story flat on the fashionable part of Baldwin Street –close enough to the river that the scent of money still perfumed the air, and close enough to the wharves for good street food and radical conversation–Cyril DePaul pulled himself from beneath a heavy duvet of moire silk. The smell of coffee was strong outside his nest of blankets. An early spring storm freckled the bedroom windows with rain.”

And this type of writing carries throughout the novel as we’re introduced to new characters like Cyril’s lover, Aristide, and Cordelia a cabaret dancer.

Aristide and Cordelia both work at Bumble Bee Cabaret, a sultry place for entertainment in this fantasy world. But under the surface of the show is Aristide, a drug runner, black market smuggler, and Cordelia, sells hard drugs to support herself outside the show. Their star performance happens about halfway through the book and is the inspiration for the cover, which emphasizes the contrast between the small, pale Cordelia and the tall, dark Aristide.

The plot surrounds Cyril’s work as a spy for the Amberlough government, he’s “made” by a fascist faction of a neighboring nation, the Ospies, and must work for them in order to save his love Aristide, but by doing so brings a rift between them. The espionage aspect was the part that was the most frustrating to read. I really struggled to care about why these two governments were fighting. From reading other reviews, I think the setting was supposed to be similar to 1930’s Berlin, but I did not pick up on that political feeling at all.

Also, as a personal pet peeve, a fantasy world without any magical elements is something I don’t care for in something labeled as “fantasy,” but I think the goal of this writing was creating a historical fantasy set in a distant land, so it didn’t need a fantastical element to tell that story, I just wish they were there.

By the end, the conflict does escalate and becomes engaging, but the spy work for each character was not something I could get into (also I was waiting for someone with magical ability or a dragon or something). What this book does have, as I mentioned before, is wonderful writing, and a book where gay relationships are normalized. For those two reasons alone, it’s worth reading.

REVIEW_ Amberlough

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