The Amber Shadows, by Lucy Ribchester

By the time I finished reading Lucy Ribchester’s The Amber Shadows, I felt like I was neck deep in red herrings. Fitting considering that this novel centers on a young typist who works at Bletchley Park, is receiving mysterious packages of amber and being followed by a strange man. The cover led me to think this book would be cozier than it really was. There are parts of this book that are psychologically very dark. Above all, however, The Amber Shadows is about puzzles that are matters of life and death.

Honey Deschamps is a quiet woman, used to staying out of the way when her opera singer mother and ballet dancer brother get dramatic. But she finds herself in her very own leading role when someone starts sending her pieces of what appears to be amber from Leningrad which, in 1942, was under siege. Then Honey discovers that the amber has been carved with some kind of cipher. In the paranoid atmosphere of Bletchley Park, it’s not good to have secrets like these.

Since Honey is not a cryptanalyst—she just cleans up decrypted messages from the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe—she has to seek help from others at the Park. Working out who to trust ends up being just as tricky as working out the cipher. The more she leans on her friend, Moira, and the attractive man who keeps turning up wherever she is, the less she can trust them. She even has questions about how much she can trust the commander of the Park.

The Amber Shadows felt uneven to me. It’s a bit too long and has too many dead ends for a thriller. It’s also a bit too action-packed for a literary historical fiction. On the other hand, all the red herrings add verisimilitude to a story about an amateur detective and code-breaker who has to go from zero to 60 in less than a week after getting tangled up in a stranger’s plot. What bothered me more was the way to tone would shift from serious thriller to disturbing psychological revelations to comical character sketches. Perhaps a bit of judicious editing would have ironed out some of these problems. In the end, after all the red herrings, I just get the feeling that this book doesn’t know quite what it wants to be.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 8 August 2017.


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