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.
Amberlough is a delight, combining elements of a John le Carré spy novel with good old-fashioned 1930s cabaret life and a healthy scoop of anti-fascist sentiment. Cyril DePaul fascinated me because it’s obvious that he used to be an excellent intelligence officer and, due to circumstances beyond his control, he’s much safer tracking down smugglers at home — though, to the delight of his lover Aristide Makricosta (smuggler and bon vivant), he’s not even terribly fired up about that. Then there’s Cordelia Lehane, introduced as a stripper at the Bumble Bee Cabaret, but who gradually becomes much more as her city and way of life are threatened by shifts in politics. Each of these three have hidden depths, their true selves buried beneath layers upon layers of personas and literal or figurative masks. The supporting characters and Amberlough city itself come alive in Donnelly’s luminous prose, and Kevin’s right in that there’s a much larger world hovering around the edges of the novel, one which I hope we’ll get to explore in Amberlough’s upcoming sequel, Armistice.