Review: AMBERLOUGH by Lara Elena Donnelly

AMBERLOUGH is a fantasy political spy thriller described as John Le Carré meets Cabaret. I was sold instantly. Put this book in my face, as I’m fond of saying. I came to it pretty soon after reading Jade City and Jade War by Fonda Lee and I’ve come to realise I’m so here for these more modern era, low-magic fantasy settings. Especially when they’re so richly populated with the kinds of complicated, true-to-life characters Lara Elena Donnelly has written in this book. Set in an alternative early 20th century secondary world with no magic, some people might quibble about whether this book is really ‘fantasy’ or not, but Amberlough represents everything I love about what speculative fiction can be in the 21st century.

Meet Cyril DePaul. A covert agent pulled off his desk job and put back in the field to collect intel on the major players of a rising nationalist political movement in the loose federation of states called Gedda. Meet his lover and sometimes assignment, Aristide Makricosta, the star performer at The Bumble Bee Cabaret, moonlighting as a smuggler of both illicit drugs and refugees hoping to escape the rising tide of political violence. And streetwise Cordelia Lehane, a burlesque dancer at The Bumble Bee just trying to get by when she’s caught up in the intrigue, espionage and politics of a city on the brink of civil upheaval.

Recently I’ve realised that, more often than not, what really makes me fall in love with a story is great characters. I love complex world building and an exciting plot as much as anyone, but without great characters to truly bring it to life, a book can easily fall flat. Given the backdrop of ascendant far right nationalism that forms the political backdrop of this book, it would have been all too simple for Donnelly to present us with caricatures of the virtuous, morally faultless ‘good guys’, fighting the good fight against the rising tide of fascism, but what she delivers is something much more nuanced, complex and altogether more human. As always, no spoilers, but some characters end up doing some pretty shitty things, and while we can sit and admonish them from the comfort of our reading chair, their motives are entirely understandable and compel you to ask yourself what you would give up for the people you love. They also do some pretty brave, selfless things and I really got the sense that these characters were real people making tough decisions in pretty trying circumstances. Do they make mistakes? Absolutely. Did I understand why they made those mistakes? Abso-frickin-lutely.

Cyril and Aristide’s relationship in this book is some of the finest writing I’ve ever seen to be honest. Cyril is stubborn and secretive, Aristide is egotistical and jealous. They’re like flint and steel striking against each other and shooting sparks onto a pile of dry hay. They’re both disasters in their own way and their relationship, while far from conventional, is a beautiful thing and my heart breaks for them both. Cordelia is my favourite character in this book though. She grew up on the wrong side of the tracks; she’s brash and a bit rough around the edges, but she’s street smart and unapologetic and I really admired her a lot for that. Her character development is incredibly well-done too. There are so many ways I can think of for a working class burlesque dancer to be badly-written, but Donnelly gives every aspect of Cordelia’s life, history and personality the true attention it deserves and she really thrives and stands out for me.

I can understand why some of you might not feel inclined to read a book about the ascendance of right wing nationalism right now, given the state of the world, but there’s also so much hope in this book. It highlights the bonds that hold people together in all their messiness and complexity and how the bravery of ordinary people to resist oppression will never go away so long as it exists.

This is a story about its characters and it wraps up their story well, if not necessarily happily for everyone involved, but I honestly don’t think you could read this book and not want to find out what happens next, both for the world and the characters we get so close to along the way. AMBERLOUGH is a fantastic book and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

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6 thoughts on “Review: AMBERLOUGH by Lara Elena Donnelly

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  1. It’s true: characters are what makes or breaks a story, and the ones you describe here seem to fit the bill perfectly – I like characters with different layers to them, like the so-called good guys with a few spots of darkness on their souls, or the villains with a chink in their armor. So this title goes straight to my “wanted” list 🙂
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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