Fantasy Review: ‘Amberlough’ by Lara Elena Donnelly

amberlough-picCross Posted at Booknest

Both timely and timeless. Wonderful yet heartbreaking. Completely fucking awesome. Oh, and debut of the year.

A nationalist fervor has empowered the One State Party though they still lack the votes to control Amberlough City. Cyril DePaul once enjoyed the spy game but is now a man who doesn’t quite want to admit he may be broken. Called back into field work he is sent to investigate the One State Party (better known as Ospies) and quickly finds himself way over his head. Soon enough he must make some tough decisions as the ‘game’ puts everything (and everyone) he cares about in danger.

Amberlough City sits on the cusp. At the Bumble Bee Cabaret Aristide Makricosta dances, flirts, and runs a small smuggling empire. His known relationship with Cyril will put them both in danger for many reasons; not the least of which is the Ospies lack of tolerance for their lifestyle. To provide cover Aristide helps introduce Cyril to fellow dancer Cordelia. All three start to play their own games; even as allies none dare share all of their cards. As Amberlough slides toward the fascist Ospie rule tough decisions are made. People are played, betrayed, and other wise used in a frantic attempt to survive in a changing world.

Think something like KJ Parker set in a cabaret club. Less fantasy than secondary world this is a spy thriller with strong characters and a heavy political influence. Also a cautionary tale, historical simile, and yet completely original. Nothing unique; many Ospie tactics are ripped straight from the history books. But original in set up and Amberlough City breaths its own life seen through the eyes of it’s diverse cast of characters; spies and dancers, smugglers and police, revolutionaries and true believers.

The book is driven by the constant quest by those most quickly affected by lands quick decent to save something. Many are actually trying to save someone they love yet show no hesitation to throw someone else to the fire. One person’s plan can get in the way of another; even if both have a similar end goal. And in the end it shows some of the true horror of a fascist landscape as people willingly engage in the worst in order to save their own (or themselves). In a totalitarian world life doesn’t stop but fear takes over.

What makes Amberlough shine is in the way it weaves hope throughout a dreadful tale. At time it is false hope of course, but our main cast holds out that there is always an escape, or a way out, or one last chance to make a difference. That the reader is mostly left heartbroken is just a positive side effect.

Amberlough City stands strong right alongside the characters; setting and people holding equal billing in this robust world. Quickly enough the lands language and political differences become clear even if the characters motivations remained veiled. The Bumble Bee is a perfect setting; a natural place for characters to meet and plots to be hatched. It also sadly a volatile spot to watch during a drastic change; a free wheeling club of ill repute that is exactly everything the Ospies want out of society.

Debut of the year has already been stated and will be stood by, February release or no.

5 Stars

Copy for review provided by publisher.

15 thoughts on “Fantasy Review: ‘Amberlough’ by Lara Elena Donnelly

    • That pace can’t continue I promise. Audiobooks on my commute help but I read at a slower pace than I used to. Plus my reviews are all around 500-700 words vs your typical novella =)


  1. This is the first review I’ve seen in my little circle, which surprises me. But wow, high praise indeed! I honestly kind of passed this by because it doesn’t seem like my kind of book, but maybe I’ll have to take another look.


  2. Wow, calling the best debut of the year already? Clearly I’ve got to see what all the fuss is about for myself. I’ve heard that this is also a really interesting read in terms of gender and sexuality too, so that’s a plus!


  3. I’d taken note of this one, but not much more than that. It was probably destined to settle somewhere in the middle of Mt. TBR (ie the hinterlands), BUT . . . now I’m going to have to check it out.

    So thanks for making me take a closer look. For some reason I’d categorized it as steampunk . . . o.O


  4. Way to throw down the gauntlet, Nathan! As I was reading the review, I was thinking “this sounds awesome but I just can’t right now…the struggle against this type of thing is too raw right now” but then I got to the paragraph about how hope is woven so well through the narrative. I will definitely be adding to my TBR to read sometime but would you recommend for someone who is feeling overwhelmed by the general shittiness of the world at the moment? Great review!


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