Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

About the Novel

In Amberlough, amidst rising political tensions, three lives become intertwined with the fate of the city itself.

The Smuggler: By day, Aristide Makricosta is the emcee for Amberlough City’s top nightclub. By night, he moves drugs and refugees under the noses of crooked cops.

The Spy: Covert agent Cyril DePaul thinks he’s good at keeping secrets, but after a disastrous mission abroad, he makes a dangerous choice to protect himself…and hopefully Aristide too.

The Dancer: Streetwise Cordelia Lehane, burlesque performer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Aristide’s runner, could be the key to Cyril’s plans–if she can be trusted.

As the twinkling marquees lights yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means—and people—necessary. Including each other.


Amberlough is one of those books with a premise that is both interesting and unique enough to make you immediately jot it down on your TBR.

A setting inspired by 1920s Europe? A smuggler, a dancer, and a government spy as main characters? A facist party trying to take control of the government? A real exploration into the oppression of homosexuality?

I’ve never read anything quite like Amberlough. It’s bold, and it’s different. There actually isn’t any magic in the book (which will turn off some readers and intrigue some others) but it still manages to have some real stakes without resorting to the old “evil magical force will engulf the world” trope.

I’ve seen so many people say that they want to read this, but I’ve unfortunately seen very few people who actually have read it. Hopefully this review will let you know if Amberlough is the book for you.


Plot

You often hear of books being plot-driven or character-driven, and I think that Amberlough actually manages to strike a good balance between the two. As such, a lot of the plot is tied into the characters and their relationships, but there is also a fair bit of outside interference that drives the story along.

The plot of this novel basically revolves around the fact that the radically-conservative fascist One State Party (known colloquially as the Ospies) is trying to seize power in Amberlough City (the capital city of Amberlough state). Amberlough is one of a number of states in the country of Gedda, and the Ospies have their fingers in states too as they seek a “unified Gedda” under Ospie rule. This is a great story with plenty of behind-the-scenes politicking, plenty of scheming, some backstabbing, and a whole lot of violence. If you like to be shocked or surprised, this is the book for you.

There are consequences to your actions in Amberlough, which I found really refreshing. There is no getting off lightly if you make a stupid mistake. Make a wrong move, or side with the wrong people, and you’ll wind up hurt or dead.

One criticism I did have is that I don’t really think the story works as a stand-alone. It’s a great story, but while technically self-contained, the ending is clearly written with a sequel in mind. As such, I never got a real sense of closure upon finishing the book, though I am now eagerly awaiting the next one.

Plot Score: 4/5


Prose

I can be harsh with my prose ratings, and while Amberlough did a lot of things well, I did sort of wish the prose could have been a little more atmospheric. That being said, I have some friends who have read the book (not enough!) and came away squeeing at the prose, so keep in mind that this is just one man’s opinion.

I felt that the prose could be a little plain and dull at times. Now, there’s nothing wrong with “plain” prose if the author is focusing on plot or character (both of which Donnelly does very well), but it can leave the slower moments feeling a bit flat.

The dialogue was very, very good, with some fantastic invented slang that is never explained but can be easily inferred from context. I think maybe the dialogue was strong enough that the descriptions seemed a bit lacking in comparison.

So… yeah. The dialogue is great, and the prose is decent but nothing to write home about. It’s a shame, because if I had enjoyed the descriptions as much the other aspects of the novel it would have gone from being a “great” book to a “HOLY SHIT READ THIS RIGHT THIS FUCKING SECOND” book.

Prose Score: 3.5/5


Character

The first thing that you need to know about the characters of Amberlough is that every single one of them are flawed. They can certainly be likable, and in some cases even admirable, but none of them are perfect. At the same time though, this is never overdone. A character may make a few stupid decisions, but there are always a few shrewd moves in there too. They might commit some despicable acts, but there’s enough good there that you can never really decry them as a bad person.

Aristide is a smart, passionate character that I immediately fell in love with. Cyril is a bit more thoughtful and brooding, but his relationship with Aristide shows that he is capable of a bit more depth. Cordelia is a wonderful example of how Strong Female Characters ™ don’t have to hide their femininity to be interesting, and don’t have to win every battle to be “strong”.

Honestly, the relationships between all of the main characters are interesting. They do all interact in some way, and each pair has a unique chemistry. There are no cookie-cutter relationships in this book.

I do have one complaint about the characters in Amberlough, although it is a small one. Throughout the book we hear about Cyril’s competence as a government spy, and yet we don’t really get to see much of that (with a few glaring exceptions). Whereas the other characters have some agency, Cyril too often feels like he is reacting to the plot, rather than driving it. However, considering the nature of the plot… maybe this couldn’t be helped. There’s only so much one man can do to stop a political movement.

Character Score: 4.25/5


Setting

Maybe it’s to do with the lack of magic, or maybe it’s just the subject matter, but the city of Amberlough seems like a very real place. It has a very 1920s feel to it, although it’s more European than prohibition-era America, and you could almost believe that this is a novelisation of some historic events. I do wish that we’d maybe explored the city a little more, although Donnelly does a great job of making sure that the setting doesn’t get in the way of the story she’s trying to tell.

That being said, certain areas of the city (particularly the Bumble Bee Cabaret) have a certain life to them, and you can tell that the scenes set in these areas have been constructed with both care and love.

Setting Score: 4/5


Summary

I honestly feel like Amberlough is one of those books that slips under the radar, when it should have had a lot more success. For me, it’s one of 2017’s unsung heroes. There’s just something very real about a book where the antagonists are homophobic uber-conservative politicians, and I feel that the discussion that this book provokes is a very important one.

If you like characters with shades of grey, complicated character relationships, hard-hitting subject matter, and novels with a bleak tone… Read Amberlough.

Just read it.

2 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s