Lara Elena Donnelly continues THE AMBERLOUGH DOSSIER with Armistice (2018), a worthy sequel to her Nebula- and Lambda-nominated novel Amberlough. Three years have passed since the fascist Ospies took over Amberlough City and its surrounding lands, bringing tremendous change and hardship to the lives of the people who oppose them. If you haven’t yet read Amberlough, I strongly suggest doing so before reading any reviews of Armistice, to avoid even minor spoilers for this brilliant, twisty series.
Cordelia Lehane, hip-deep in a resistance movement cleverly named “the Catwalk” for their ability to move unseen while effecting great change, has smuggled herself out of the city in her search for Aristide Makricosta, who’s made quite a name for himself directing films in Porachis under the watchful eye of a forbidding producer with wealthy contacts. Aristide himself enjoys his work, though his reasons for leaving Amberlough are never far from his mind, and constantly chafe him. And Lillian DePaul, press attaché for Counseler Flagg of the Ospies’ foreign service office, works day and night to provide the right spin on daily news briefs, diplomatic upsets, and the daily cruelties imposed upon Amberlough’s residents — an office she would gladly quit if not for Flagg’s constant threats of violence against her young son. (Sharp-eyed readers would do well to take note of Ms. DePaul’s name and appearance, as they are crucial to the part she plays.) How these three come together, and the choices they make either for their own benefit or to the benefit of the resistance, are what make Armistice both fascinating and compelling to the very last page.
The characters themselves are captivating in their complexity. Each of them has done deplorable and even illegal things, but their arguments for doing so are often compellingly persuasive, and it’s difficult to judge them for trying to stay alive and whole (either physically or mentally) in the face of danger. There are no easy outs, no shining figureheads of rightness; everyone’s got at least a little dirt on their shoes, and will probably end up with a lot more by the time this is all said and done.
Quite a lot of this second novel involves planning, discussion, palace intrigue (sometimes literally), and some very well-deserved shouting. It would be easy to say that not much happens here, but I think that would be a mistake, because Donnelly uses these pages to establish her characters as very real, flawed people, and to explore the awful consequences experienced by people who are considered “unsuitable” by fascist governments of every stripe. Sofie and Mab Cattayim, for example, make appearances throughout Armistice, and their troubles as a non-traditional family by Ospie standards are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Ospie campaign to wipe out dissidents and undesirables. Donnelly’s agenda is as plain as the words on the page, but it’s all part and parcel of the story she’s telling, rather than stock characters acting as authorial mouthpieces.
Donnelly also makes good use of the change in setting, contrasting Central European-influenced Amberlough against tropical Porachis, bringing the sweltering heat and oppressive humidity to life in scenes nearly overstuffed with sensory information. As if the weather weren’t enough, she ratchets the tension even higher than in Amberlough, combining state-sanctioned kidnapping, torture, and murder with personal crises and subterfuge. In Amberlough, it was fairly easy to know who to trust; in Armistice, the personal stakes are so high for so many characters that it’s impossible to know from one paragraph to the next if anyone will do the right thing and damn the consequences, or if they’ll betray everyone around them for the fragile lie of security and safety. I genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen to whom even in the final chapters, and I can’t applaud Donnelly enough for keeping her intentions so tightly hidden from the reader.
Armistice is different enough from Amberlough that I didn’t get a sense of a middle-book slump, and it’s certainly strong enough to propel the series forward into the third novel, which — as I understand things — is currently titled Amnesty and slated for a 2019 release. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Donnelly’s AMBERLOUGH DOSSIER so far, and you can bet I’ll continue recommending this series to readers who enjoy spycraft, stagecraft, and rock-solid characters.