by Lara Elena Donnelly
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Amberlough is the debut novel from Lara Elena Donnelly. It was a finalist this year for both the Nebula and Lambda awards, neither of which it won. It is also the first book in a trilogy. The second title, Armistice, was released in May, and the concluding volume, Amnesty, can be pre-ordered for a April 2019 release. It's well written, with several interesting characters, but ultimately unsatisfying for me, and I doubt I'll continue with the series. A film adaptation would be interesting though, because it reminded me of something directed by Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder, starring Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich. It could also be compared to Cabaret, since two of the main characters are stage performers at a similar venue.
There were a couple of times I thought I might not finish it, and then after I did I wondered if I should review it. In spite of its Nebula nomination, it is not science fiction, nor is there any fantasy element, not even steampunk. It is speculative fiction in the sense it is set in an alternate world of fictional countries with different political organizations and social conventions. Basically, it's a spin on the Weimar Republic of the early 1930s. In this case, the country is Gedda, with Amberlough being the capital city. Instead of Nazis, the coup is perpetrated by the Ospies, the One State Party. Cyril DePaul is an operative for Amberlough's Central Intelligence, on desk duty investigating smuggling operations after a near-death experience while undercover. He has to overlook the activities of his lover, Aristide Makricosta, part-time smuggler, part-time emcee and performer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret. Cyril is sent back into the field to investigate the Ospies prior to the election, but an apparent mole in the organization outs him, and he is forced to work for the Ospies, with his illicit homosexual affair used as leverage against him. The Bumble Bee's stripper, Cordelia Lehane, is asked to pose as Cyril's girlfriend to appease the Ospies.
Cyril is only going along with the Ospies to save Aristide, but Aristide continues his operations, which includes smuggling refugees, so he's putting himself in danger with every action. Cordelia had already been selling drugs, but Aristide provides her with higher quality product in exchange for her assisting Cyril, and also uses her as a courier for messages and moving fake exit visas. Things don't go smooth for either of them. Every time it seemed they were compassionate allies, conscious of the perils all Amberlinians faced in the changing political climate, they each would do things that were completely selfish. Neither of the men were particularly sympathetic, although in their defense at least they weren't as bad as the fascists. If any of the description strikes you as interesting, I wouldn't try to talk you out of reading it. Donnelly provides multi-faceted characters, vivid descriptions of place and mood, and sparkling dialogue which contains what I assumed was original slang, but it felt real and natural. As you might assume, there are also parallels to current events. I might continue with the series if the other books are also nominated for awards, but I'm not enthusiastic about it at this time. It's possible it just wasn't the book for me now, I might have had a different reaction at another time. I've now reviewed all but one of the Nebula and Hugo finalists for this year, and it's clear I don't share the tastes of many others submitting nominations. Not counting the one I haven't read, of the other ten I've only given four of them positive reviews.
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