Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly


I think it’s clear that the western world is still processing World War II because the war, the Holocaust, and the run up to both still feature heavily in our fiction—even in genres you might not expect. In Amberlough, Lara Elena Donnelly grafts elements of Weimar Germany onto a fantasy novel, with a healthy dollop of Cabaret on top, to tell a story about lovers caught in impossible situations as their world changes for the worse.

Amberlough centers on three characters. Cyril DePaul is a spy who has seen better days. He has a desk job when we meet him, but is sent back out into the field shortly after the opening of the book. Meanwhile, his lover Aristide divides his time working as a drag queen at the Bumble Bee Theater and smuggling things into the city to support his lavish lifestyle. Lastly, Cordelia strips at the Bumble Bee and juggles lovers (unsuccessfully). Cyril is our entry point into life in the city of Amberlough and the changing political landscape, as the country begins a rapid descent into fascism.

Curiously for a story about love, the various lovers spend a lot of time apart. Cyril and Aristide are separated when Cyril is sent north to investigate election shenanigans. The fascist party has pulled a lot of strings to win an election (the beginning of the end for free-wheeling Amberlough). They spend most of the rest of the novel trying to get back to each other. Cordelia makes mistakes that sends her lovers running. (Though I think she later learns that she likes blowing things up more than men.) All three get more and more political as the fascists infiltrate parliament, the police, and the rest of Amberlough.

All three characters—Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia—are fighting the same fight for their loves and their city. But they fight from different angles. Cyril has been blackmailed by the fascists, so he’s trying to fight them from within. Aristide and Cordelia fight back from varying levels of the city’s criminal underworld. They intersect frequently and it’s a marvel sometimes to watch the plot threads weave together and apart for the length of the book.

Amberlough, though it borrows heavy from pre-war noir, had me guessing almost constantly. I had no idea what would happen next because Donnelly consistently defies genre convention. By that I mean that nothing goes right for the trio. Their plots get found out or they just have bad luck. Because of Cyril and Aristide’s love and Cordelia’s spunk, I couldn’t help but root for them. Some of the events of the end of the book punched me right in the feels.

I sincerely hope we see more from Donelly about the city of Amberlough.

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