I hate to say that Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly is timely, but it is just that. Most reviews compare it to Cabaret, and it really does seem to draw closely from the end of the Weimar Republic and rather than spend pages and pages explaining the political atmosphere, Donnelly allows the reader to fill in the gaps with real life references. I think many will find uncomfortable parallels with certain recent political events, as the Ospies crackdown on immigrants, racial and religious minorities and the LGBT.
The story centers around three protagonists: Cyril DePaul, a spy who has been out of the game for a few years and finds himself in the grips of the Ospies; his lover Aristide, cabaret star and criminal kingpin; and Cordelia Lehane, a firey dancer with a drug dealing side hustle. All three struggle as the Ospies tighten their grip around the city’s throat, and all three take radically different ways of resisting.
Readers may find Aristide and Cordelia’s predicaments relatable, even if their circumstances are fantastical. How many of us in 2016 thought, “this could never happen here?” How many of us saw the rise of the alt right coming, but dismissed it or, in hindsight, didn’t treat it as seriously as it deserved? Like us, Aristide and Cordelia in their own ways prepare for the tightening noose, hoping to slip out at the last minute if it comes to that, but the rapidly changing political atmosphere ultimately takes both by surprise. In the end, they are in two very different places, and I am left unsure whether I would do better than either of them.
Cyril is a frustrating character, and the book’s flaws are largely his flaws. We are to believe that he was an incredibly skilled spy being sent back out into the field, but he is incredibly naive enough to make a deal with the Ospies (and live up to it when he’s back in Amberlough City and out of danger) and he never informs Aristide of the deal he made. He also makes some very contradictory decisions near the end that made me scratch my head. I’m trying to keep this light on spoilers but it involves him refusing to receive very important information because he might talk under torture, then mere hours later he radically changes his plans because he says he never considered the fact that he might talk under torture. Whether that was him cracking up or an oversight, I’m not sure. Regardless, readers will struggle to remain sympathetic with him. The rise of the Ospies isn’t completely his fault, but if he had made different choices and stood up to them...well, it would be a much shorter book.
Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly is sexy, fun and gut wrenching. The good times roar as we wait for the other shoe to drop, for the fascists to burst down the door and break up the party. This book will break your heart, and you will be grateful for it. It was published by Tor.com on February 7, 2017 and is available wherever fine books are sold.
Megan “Spooky” Crittenden is a secluded writer who occasionally ventures from her home to give aid to traveling adventurers.