Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly. ★★★★
The best comparison I can make for Amberlough is that it’s a cross of Orwell’s 1984 and Kushner’s Swordspoint. It’s fantasy without magic, set in a world based on Weimar Berlin and experiencing the rise of fascism. Oh, and the three central characters are a gay spy, his smuggler lover, and a stripper who acts as his beard. Amberlough is both dark and somehow delightful.
Amberlough City is a corrupt but cultured city, the bustling heart of Gedda. But the One State Party (“Ospies”) want to unite Gedda’s four provinces into one centralized, socially conservative nation, and they are making increasing strides in shaping Gedda to their vision. Cyril DePaul is a spy who’s masters are growing concerned with the Ospies’s rise, but when Cyril’s cover is blown, he makes the decision to work with the Ospies for his own survival and that of his lover, smuggler Aristide Makricosta. Into this delicate dance of politics and survival, Aristide brings Cordelia Lehane, a dancer and drug dealer who works alongside him at the Bumble Bee club. As their way of life is threatened, these three will have to decide what they are willing to do to ensure their own survival and at what costs.
At its core, Amberlough is about the choices these three protagonists make and how the rise of a fascist government shapes them. What are they willing to do to survive? At what point are they willing to put their life on their line and fight? Each character ends up walking a different path, learning something about who they are under the pressure of the Ospies.
I adored all of the characters, even if I was frustrated by the decisions they made. Cyril admits that he’s a coward, and it becomes increasingly clear that he’s willing to put his own survival ahead of others… except maybe when it comes to Aristide. Aristide is a smuggler and drug king, but he may have more ethical compunctions than Cyril. While he values his own survival, he won’t cooperate with the Ospies to do so. I’d be hard pressed to chose between him and Cordelia as my favorite character of the novel. Cordelia’s a firecracker. Like all the others, she’s done morally questionable things to survive, including currently selling the same drug that killed her mother in order to make ends meet. But Amberlough is her home through and through, and she begins to realize that she’d rather stay and fight than run and live.
From the description, it may be obvious why I compared this book to Ellen Kushner’s Riverside novels and George Orwell’s 1984. Like Riverside, Amberlough is a fantasy story set in its own world but without magic and with a highly historical feel. Also like Riverside, queer characters proliferate. Like 1984, Amberlough deals with totalitarianism and cooperation versus resistance. However, Amberlough is completely its own story, and while the atmospheric setting may have clear parallels to Weimar Berlin, it’s different in other ways. For one, it is a lot more gender egalitarian than the time period its analogous to, and it’s actually much less patriarchal and better with female characters than either 1984 or Swordspoint. Working women seem common, referred to as “razors” for their short haircuts. Female generals are referenced offhandedly, and Cyril’s boss and the head of the spy agency is a woman. Of course, all this may change if the Ospies get their way.
Amberlough was just incredibly well written. From characters to world to plot to thematic material to emotional impact – Donnelly excels at all of these. I would never have guessed that this was a debut novel. While it may have started slow, by the end my eyes were gripped to the page. I’ll be incredibly surprised if this book doesn’t garner any award nominations – I think it’s clearly one of the best new releases of 2017. I’m also incredibly grateful for the announcement that Tor’s publishing two companion novels. I want more of Donnelly’s writing and of the world of Amberlough, and I encourage everyone else to read it. I doubt Amberlough will disappoint.