Amberlough: A rich, well-written romance and instant classic

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Amberlough by Lara Elena DonnellyAmberlough by Lara Elena DonnellyAmberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

While Lara Elena Donnelly’s debut novel Amberlough (2017) isn’t quite the Fleming-esque spy thriller it purports to be, Amberlough certainly doesn’t disappoint. Set in Amberlough City, a decadent, Industrial-era locale reminiscent of Paris in the early 1900s, Amberlough tells the story of Cyril DePaul and his lover Aristide Makricosta, who also happens to be the city’s greatest crime lord. Cyril, a former field operative in Amberlough’s Federal Office of Central Intelligence Services who landed a cushy desk job after an assignment went awry, is supposed to be keeping tabs on Aristide by seducing him but instead finds himself truly falling for Aristide instead. At the same time, a fascist movement is coming to power in Amberlough’s vibrant democracy, so life in the city is becoming more and more dangerous for Cyril and Aristide every day as the crackdown begins on non-heterosexual relationships, the criminal underground, and anything marked deviant.

Fascism and the espionage that tries to defeat it are major sources of tension throughout Amberlough, and it’s fascinating to see how Cyril and Aristide cope with the situation in their own ways. Lara Donelly has done an excellent job crafting characters with depth and complexity, who each have their own quirks and mannerisms. However, even when you think you are beginning to understand Cyril’s or Aristide’s personalities, Donnelly is able to incorporate some surprising plot points (such as the ending of Amberlough) that provide action and tension while simultaneously revealing more about the protagonists. In this sense, Amberlough is a character-driven work: the plot leans heavily on Cyril and Aristide’s romance, and the lengths that they would go to for each other. Donnelly’s decision to focus on characters ends up working very well, as the pacing and plot development in Amberlough all exceed expectation.

Another of Amberlough’s major selling points is Donnelly’s exquisite prose, which is almost on par with Rothfuss or Kay. From the first page on, Donnelly draws you in slowly, tempting you with fantastic, decadent imagery:

At the beginning of the workweek, most of Amberlough’s salaryfolk crawled reluctantly from their bed — or someone else’s — and let the trolleys tow them, hungover and half asleep, to the office. Amberlough City, eponymous capital of the larger state, was not home to many early risers.

In a second-story flat on the fashionable part of Baldwin Street — close enough to the river that the scent of money still perfumed the air, and close enough to the wharves for good street food and radical conversation — Cyril DePaul pulled himself from beneath a heavy duvet of moiré silk. The smell of coffee was strong outside his nest of blankets. An early spring storm freckled the bedroom windows with rain.

At many points in Amberlough, I even found myself re-reading the paragraph I’d just finished because Donnelly weaves delicious details into her writing seamlessly, and the flow her prose is perfect. Often, it was only after I had finished a sentence or two that I could appreciate her style to its fullest — so re-reading portions of the text wasn’t a distracting chore but rather a delight because the diction, the metaphors, and the rhythm work so well together.

One concern for me, though, is the lack of worldbuilding in Amberlough. Donnelly drops a number of hints about the existence of a complex world in Amberlough, but most of the cultures and governments aside from Amberlough’s are sketched in only the roughest of outlines. This is a major reason that I say Amberlough is not a spy novel but rather a romance masquerading as a spy novel; even the espionage fieldwork that’s conducted in Donnelly’s debut isn’t fleshed out enough to where I would like it to be. I suspect that a lot of the reason for this literary choice is that we’ll be seeing a lot more of Amberlough’s world in the sequel(s) — for example, I have a strong suspicion Cyril’s sister and the northern lands might make strong appearances in the near future. While this is understandable, I still would have liked to see a bit more emphasis on the worldbuilding and the histories both of nations and of characters in this title.

Amberlough is by far one of the top debuts of the year, and will likely make my Best of 2017 list. If you enjoy good prose and well-developed characters or are a fan of well-written romance, I’d strongly recommend you pick up Amberlough. However, I’m not sure I would recommend Donnelly to anyone who is searching for a hardcore spy novel. In any case, Amberlough has the potential to become an instant cult classic.

Published February 17, 2017. From author Lara Elena Donnelly, a debut spy thriller as a gay double-agent schemes to protect his smuggler lover during the rise of a fascist government coup. Trust no one with anything – especially in Amberlough City. Covert agent Cyril DePaul thinks he’s good at keeping secrets, especially from Aristide Makricosta. They suit each other: Aristide turns a blind eye to Cyril’s clandestine affairs, and Cyril keeps his lover’s moonlighting job as a smuggler under wraps. Cyril participates on a mission that leads to disastrous results, leaving smoke from various political fires smoldering throughout the city. Shielding Aristide from the expected fallout isn’t easy, though, for he refuses to let anything – not the crooked city police or the mounting rage from radical conservatives – dictate his life. Enter streetwise Cordelia Lehane, a top dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Aristide’s runner, who could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means — and people — necessary. Including each other. Combining the espionage thrills of le Carré with the allure of an alternate vintage era, Amberlough will thoroughly seduce and enthrall you.

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KEVIN WEI, with us since December 2014, is an undergrad at Columbia University. Secretly, Kevin has always believed in dragons. Not the Smaug kind of dragon, only the friendly ones that invite you in for tea. This might just be because Funke’s Dragon Rider was the story that mercilessly hauled him into the depths of the SFF genre at the ripe old age of 5. His literary tastes range from epic fantasy to military fantasy to New Weird, although sometimes he does enjoy a good space opera here and there, and some of his favorite authors include Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Django Wexler, and Joe Abercrombie. To Kevin, a good book requires not only a good character set and storyline, but also beautiful prose — he is extremely discriminating as it pertains to this last bit. Outside of his bibliophilic life, Kevin loves economics, philosophy, policy debate, classical music, and political science.

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4 comments

  1. Kevin, great review. This book has come in at a local bookstore and I will be getting it tonight; can’t wait to dive in.

    From other things I’d read I hadn’t imagined it as a “spy novel,” but more noirish. More like “Cabaret” than “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” I guess.

    • Thanks, Marion! :)

      I think I saw either some review headlines/quotes or ads/descriptions of Amberlough that said it was a cross between James Bond and something else, so I just thought I’d make clear this isn’t really a spy novel. It definitely is more noirish

  2. Now that I’ve read it, if I had to categorize it I’d say “A LeCarre-style story in a Brechtian world.”

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