Review: AMBERLOUGH by Lara Elena Donnelly

Book Reviews

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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Review: STORM FRONT by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files #1)

Book Reviews

Can you believe I didn’t actually know what The Dresden Files books were even about until a few weeks ago? Like, I hear people talking about them all the time, but for whatever reason they never pierced my consciousness and I just didn’t make the effort to find out. Imagine my sheer surprise and delight when I found out they’re about a freelance wizard investigator who solves mysteries. I’m not kidding, as soon as I found out this was the premise, I bought the first book the same day and inhaled it in two more. I mean look at that mash up comparison on the cover: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer starring Philip Marlowe”. Just yes. All the yes.

So at the beginning of STORM FRONT we meet Harry Dresden, wizard investigator for hire. And then there’s no breathing room from that point out. He immediately receives a phone call from an evasive and somewhat distressed woman whose husband has gone missing, offering to pay Harry a big old chunk of money to find out what happened to him. And for Harry Dresden, who’s always one rent payment away from eviction, this isn’t something he’s gonna turn down. On the same day, he’s also summoned to the scene of a gruesome crime scene by the Chicago Police department, where a double murder has been committed using magical means. Wham! Two mysteries right off the bat. And things only get more complicated for our intrepid wizard private dick from here. In his tenacious endeavour to solve both the mystery of the missing husband and the arcane homicide, he has to contend with the attention of the mob, lascivious vampires and his suspicious warden intent on ratting him out to the White Council for breaking the laws of magic.

This book was such a page-turner. There’s so much going on plot-wise that I just never wanted to put it down. This, combined with such a fabulously entertaining and colourful cast of characters, meant it was just a blast to read. Harry himself is your typical grizzled, misanthropic, hard-drinking libertine P.I. in a duster. And far from being tired and played out, he’s actually such an endearing character. His deadpan, dry humour was a constant source of enjoyment for me, especially in the scenes he shares with Bob. Bob is the best. Bob is an air spirit trapped inside a skull in Harry’s basement laboratory, who Harry sometimes cajoles into casting spells he wouldn’t otherwise be able to perform. There were a bunch of laugh out loud moments in this book, but I reckon most of them happened in scenes where Bob was around. On top of that there’s Toot-Toot, the dewdrop faerie Harry tricks into assisting him; Johnny Marcone, the don of the local Chicago mob and of course, Mister, Harry’s rather large and long-suffering cat. You’ve got your femme fatale, your dogged newspaper journalist, your well-intentioned-but-bound-by-the-rules police officer; I enjoyed reading about them all and while they’re mostly tropey as tropey gets, it’s done so well that it’s actually part of the charm.

The one thing I wish had been worked out better was the resolution to the mystery. Obviously no spoilers because that would just be the worst but, suffice to say I didn’t think we got to see enough of the villain for the big reveal to have much of an impact. I don’t know about you, but in these types of murder investigation mysteries, I want to have built up a connection with the eventual perpetrator over the course of the story, so that when the reveal is made, I can have some kind of reaction to it. Whether that reaction is “Yep, totally knew it was them cos of x, y and z said they said and did”, or “What??? I’d never have guessed it was them, they covered their tracks so well” or something else, but at least something. Unfortunately I thought the resolution to this story didn’t have any of that, so when the murderer was finally revealed I just thought “Oh, that’s who did it. Cool, makes sense”, but other than that I didn’t really care. Ultimately though, this didn’t matter to me too much because the journey there was so enjoyable.

I really enjoyed STORM FRONT and, while it didn’t completely blow my mind, it’s proof that with a fresh twist on a much-beloved trope, books don’t have to be particularly original to be a whole lot of fun. And this is definitely a whole lot of fun.

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Review: UNDER ORDSHAW by Phil Williams

Book Reviews

This is the second urban fantasy book I’ve read in a row – the other one being the first Dresden Files book – and now I know that urban fantasy actually doesn’t mean the same thing as paranormal romance I think this is a genre I could really get into. Cos there ain’t no romance in UNDER ORDSHAW folks. This is a gritty, grimy tale of subterranean monsters, foul-mouthed rifle-strapped fairies and the people tasked to hunt them down in the name of national security. This review is part of the Storytellers on Tour blog tour for the book, so make sure to check them out for the rest of the tour schedule as well as a bunch of other great reviews.

I’ll start by saying I sat down with this book, blinked a couple times, had a few sips of tea and “What the fuck I’m halfway through already?”. I churned through that first half like butter cos it just has a bunch of stuff I’m an absolute sucker for. Shady government agencies covering shit up, an outcast main character living on the fringes of society and (something I didn’t realise I loved until I read this book) those foul-mouthed rifle-strapped fairies!

So our main protagonist is Pax, an outcast who makes a living playing poker. I was invested in Pax straight away, not least because I actually played poker professionally for a few years and it’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen explored in fantasy and science fiction, but also because of how quickly she’s thrust into the crazy and intriguing mystery that sets the book up. Yeah, there’s no messing about in the intro, Pax is in the wrong place at the wrong time, has a bunch of money stolen by a strange kid called Rufaizu and almost immediately attracts the attention of one Cana Casario, an agent of the covertly-named Ministry of Environmental Energy. Casario becomes an immediate pain in Pax’s arse after she discovers a bunch of mysterious items in the wreck of a house belonging to the strange guy who stole her cash. This was the strongest part of the book for me and the part that really got me to buy in. It’s mildly spoilery to go into the exact things Pax finds in Rufaizu’s flat, but they’re weird, they’re obviously important, they make no sense whatsoever on the surface and it’s probably the biggest mistake of Pax’s life that she decides to keep them as collateral for the money he stole from her.

There’s always discussion in writing circles about how to get readers to identify with and root for your main character and I thought Williams did a great job of this by having the reader discover these weird mysteries alongside Pax, almost having us stand alongside her as we both puzzle over what hell is going on. This part of the book also does double-duty as seamless world-building, showing the reader this world isn’t the world we know, that there’s some weird shit going on, even if we don’t yet know exactly what.

One character in particular deserves a special mention and that’s Letty. Letty is a fairy and she is awesome. Drinks like a sailor, swears like a motherfucker and packs a whole lotta punch for a two inch tall Layer Fae. Some of the absolute best dialogue in Under Ordshaw comes out of Letty’s foul mouth and I love the relationship that develops between her and Pax. There’s an edge and a friction to their relationship that’s downright dangerous a lot of the time – and that never really goes away – but the friendshiiip(???), if not something bordering on mutual respect, that develops between them is great and one of my favourite things about this book.

There were parts of Under Ordshaw that I didn’t vibe with quite as much. I found aspects of the plot a bit confusing at times, mainly regarding some characters’ motivations for doing certain things. This may have partly been down to me just not keeping up, cos there are a lot of shifting alliances at different point of the book – people working together at one point are working against each other later on and vice versa. I did have to sit and think through why people were doing what they were doing sometimes, which detracted a little bit from the story and there’s still some things I don’t really get. For instance, I still don’t get why Rufaizu stole Pax’s money at all in the first chapter. I mean, it set Pax up to get involved in all this sure, but like, was it just a convenient plot device or did he actually have a reason to do it? Maybe I missed something but it’s still not clear to me.

(EDIT: Thinking about this, I feel like it may not actually have been Rufaizu who stole the money at all, but Casario, who did so as a way of deliberately pulling Pax into his world. I’m possibly just dumb as a bag of rocks, but I didn’t pick up on this at the time. Have you read the book? If so please let me know your take on this).

One major drawback for me was that honestly, I just didn’t care about the Barton family =/. Darren Barton is a monster hunter, but one who does it for the thrills rather than through official channels. He gave it up years before the book begins to save his marriage but the desire to be out there doing something and the frustration of being cooped up takes its toll on him and his marriage. Darren (aka Citizen) Barton gets drawn back into the shady underground monster-hunting biz and his wife (Holly) and daughter (Grace) are unwittingly drawn back in with him. Clearly this spells danger for the Bartons and much of the second part of the book centres around their plight. Unfortunately I thought Darren was a bit of a wooden character, Holly is one-dimensional and quite irritating and similarly there’s just not much to Grace either. I found this surprising given that Williams does such a great job with almost every character except the Bartons. Pax, Letty, Casario, they’re all great characters. Casario is a creepy, unlikable, borderline narcissistic piece of shit sure, but still well-written and fleshed out. Not so any of the Barton family. Which is unfortunate, given that so much of the tension towards the end centres around the danger they faced and I dunno man, I just didn’t really care what happened to them. Maybe I’m just a bad person.

Overall I enjoyed Under Ordshaw. At it’s best it’s awesome, just top-notch devourable urban fantasy with great character work, world-building and dialogue. It’s main drawback for me was the strange blip on the radar when it came to the Barton family. I just find it so odd that I loved everyone else except them, but it is what it is. Def pick this book up though, there’s a lot to enjoy and well worth the read.

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