TITLE: Amberlough (The Amberlough Dossier #1)
AUTHOR: Lara Elena Donnelly
GENRE: Fiction, Fantasy
PUBLISHED: February 7, 2017
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
It is frequently said that we should not forget history, lest we forget the lessons it is meant to teach us. There are of course many variations to that old hobbyhorse of an idea, but the fact remains that it is true - especially so today. The rise of totalitarian regimes and the increasing popularity of fascism or fascism-adjacent ideas is happening all around the world. There are those who fear that at some point in the near future, we will see the rise of a state very much like Nazi Germany - except it will soon be followed by even more, similar states. Those of us who have not forgotten our history are doing what we can to prevent the coming storm, however we can manage it, because none of us wants to see history repeat itself.
That is why reading Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly is simultaneously entertaining and discomfiting, because it shows the reader what could happen if we do not do something about the way our world is today. Taking place in the city of Amberlough, it follows the character Cyril dePaul, a spy who works for Amberlough’s Foxhole. If anyone is familiar with the dirty side of Amberlough it’s Cyril, but he loves it anyway, because although there are plenty of nefarious things going on in the shadows cast by the bright lights of Amberlough - many of them perpetrated by his lover, the drug smuggler and entertainer Aristide Makricosta - it is still a city full of life, diverse and vibrant, and he cannot imagine calling any other place home.
Part of Cyril’s job involves keeping a wary eye on the proponents of the One State Party, whose adherents, called Ospies, are pushing to unite all four states of Gedda under the rule of Caleb Acherby, the leading light of the One State Party. So when Cyril is sent on a mission to derail an election that could get Acherby the entrance he needs into the upper echelons of power, he sets out to do his job. He knows how important it is that he prevent giving the Ospies more power, and he will do what he can to stop them from rising too far.
But the Ospies’ game is much deeper than Cyril anticipated. They blow his cover and force him to work for them on pain of death. His new mission: soften Amberlough up from within to prepare it for an Ospie takeover. Though Cyril’s hands are tied, he intends to do what he can to get those he cares about out of the city before it all goes up in flames. As the Ospies close in and Amberlough starts shifting under the strain, Cyril realises that, despite all his good intentions, he may have helped lay down the groundwork for the rise of a dictatorial regime from which nothing and no one is safe.
One of the first things a reader might notice about this novel is that, though superficially a fantasy novel, it does not follow the usual fantasy tropes and conventions that distinguish the genre. Most notable would be the complete absence of magic. While magic need not be an overt plot element in a fantasy story, fantasy stories in general are almost all defined by the presence of magic, subtle or otherwise. Even in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, magic is still present, even though it does not play a large role in the story.
In Amberlough, however, there is no magic at all. None of the characters mention it, not even as a part of superstition or religious practice. Indeed, the setting appears to be no different from Weimar-era Germany. This similarity is deliberate. I cannot sum it up in a few quotes, since the references are difficult to disentangle from the greater body of the story, but suffice to say that the author has chosen to write about that particular period in history for a reason - chief of which is to remind the reader that what happened in the past with the Nazis is happening once again in the contemporary world. While a lot of readers will not mind this much, I have read reviews from readers who did not appreciate this at all, especially those who were expecting something else entirely out of this novel.
So why write it as a fantasy at all? I suspect that writing this story as a fantasy (i.e. setting it in a made-up world) instead of in the proper historical setting allows the author to include socio-cultural elements that would not be historically accurate in a real-world historical setting. For instance, Amberlough is portrayed as having a very diverse and open culture: women hold important positions of power both in government and in business; no one is denigrated based on the colour of their skin or gender identification; and people are free to love whom they wish provided everyone in the relationship is consenting. That level of acceptance is rare to non-existent even in the twenty-first century and was even less so in the 1920s to 1930s.
However, utopias are impossible, and the same goes for the setting of the novel. Corruption is rampant enough that Amberlinians themselves consider it a defining character trait of someone who lives in the city. It is so deeply ingrained that Amberlough’s equivalent of the CIA, the Federal Office of Central Intelligence Services (FOCIS, or the Foxhole for short), depends upon corruption to make money:
… The bursar’s team made eye-popping embezzlements into minor calculating errors. Bribes and payoffs disappeared into endless columns of numbers and names. Agents were paid in secretive exchanges, the intricacies of which could escape even authorizing division heads. The accountants were, to a person, discreet, clean-cut, and scrupulously polite. They terrified the rest of Central.
It is this contrast that makes the setting for this novel so interesting to me as a reader. On one hand, Amberlough’s culture of openness and diversity is something I myself dream of living in, but the rampant corruption bothers me, not least because I live in a country with a notoriously corrupt government and know just what kind of effect that kind of corruption can have on the economy and, therefore, on the prosperity of individuals and their ability to live a good life. Despite this recognition, the fact that these two cultures exist side-by-side does not surprise me. Just because a culture does not practice misogyny, homophobia, and racism does not mean it is not susceptible to rampant political greed.
This study in contrasts extends to the characters, many of whom lead double lives; are hiding secrets about themselves; or both. Cyril DePaul is supposed to be a spy trying to bring down a smuggling ring but is in fact sleeping with the leader of said smuggling ring. Aristide Makricosta is a criminal but is also the most popular entertainer in the most popular cabaret in Amberlough. And Cordelia Lehane is a dancer at the same cabaret as Aristide but is also a drug runner. None of the characters in this novel are, strictly speaking, “good people”; they do things that would be considered reprehensible, but their reasons for doing so are often understandable, if not outright sympathetic. This is especially true as the plot progresses; the adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” becomes especially applicable as the plot goes on and chaos descends upon Amberlough and on the characters, some of whom are partially responsible for bringing down that chaos in the first place.
It is also that adage that supports the novel’s thematic backbone. Throughout the novel, the characters make decisions that impact the fate of those around them both directly and indirectly as Amberlough starts to fall apart all around them. Some of them ignore what is going on until they cannot ignore it any longer, while others gamble, taking first one course of action and then another in order to protect what - and who - they value the most. Some of them turn out to be unlikely heroes - while others turn into unlikely villains. Either way, they do what they do because in the moment they make their decisions, they think they are doing the right thing. It is only later, at the end of the novel, that the characters really understand the consequences of their actions - and what they need to do in order to go forward.
This theme plays out well with the espionage focus of the plot. A quote from John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of the novel’s epigraphs, which should tell the reader just what kind of espionage story the author is using this novel: the slow, methodical kind that has more to do with real-world espionage than any of James Bond’s hijinks. In general, such plots can be difficult to handle, since there is a fine line that the author needs to walk between authenticity of real spy-work (which can be boring and tedious) and action (which is exciting but can sometimes be inauthentic). Fortunately, in the case of Amberlough, the author manages to walk that fine line by allowing most of the novel’s plot to develop from the characters’ actions while simultaneously working on their growth and development. To be sure, this method depends almost entirely on the reader being interested enough in the characters to want to see what happens to them, but that was not a problem in my case since I find those characters interesting anyway.
Overall, Amberlough is a thoroughly enjoyable character-driven fantasy story with a well-built espionage plot that ratchets up the tension until it all finally falls apart at the novel’s climax. The characters are not necessarily good people, but they are interesting people, and that is a good thing because they are the beating heart of this novel, their choices and actions driving the story onwards. But underneath all the decadent Art Deco trappings and cloak-and-dagger action is a warning: that our choices determine the future, for better or for worse - and choosing not to act is, in and of itself, a choice.