Liz Bourke reviews Lara Elena Donnelly

Amberlough, Lara Elena Donnelly (Tor 978-0765383815, $25.99, 400pp, hc) February 2017.

Lara Elena Donnelly’s debut Amberlough and Kameron Hurley’s latest science fiction novel The Stars Are Legion are vastly dissimilar, but they share one thing in common: they’re both, in their own separate ways, stories about love, secrets, and fear.

Amberlough is a fantasy novel that in some respects reminds me of Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. Like Swordspoint, it takes place in a secondary world in which magic is non-existent (or low-key to the point of non-existence), and, like Swordspoint, it sets itself in a city – the titular Amberlough – that is as much a character as any of the novel’s individuals.

Amberlough is a city of cabaret and corrup­tion, glittering and cosmopolitan and permissive. It evokes the feel of post-WWI Paris, or Weimar Berlin in that great doomed flourishing of art and culture and nightlife before the curtains came down with the Reichstag fire. With automobiles and telegraphs and office workers, this is a familiar city, for all that its gender norms don’t look at all like what you might expect from comparison to any historical analogues of which it might remind you. It’s queer by default, in ways both subtle and obvious – there is, for example, a recognised form of marriage that includes more than two parties.

Amberlough is also one part (one quarter) of a federal nation, Gedda, and in the rest of the nation, the repressive, authoritarian One State Party – xenophobic, chauvinistic, homophobic, and populist – is rapidly gaining ground. Amberlough is terrifyingly topical, and no, in case you’re wondering, it doesn’t end with the One State Party, the Ospies, in any kind of retreat.

Cyril DePaul is a spy and a civil servant, and Amberlough’s tragic centre. Tragic, that is, in the older sense: he’s betrayed by his own flaws. (In terms of personality, he rather reminds me of Lord Peter Wimsey without anything like a moral core.) Eventually, Cyril becomes the tool by which the Ospies undermine Amberlough’s ability to resist a fascist coup, but the reader first encounters him in bed with his lover, Aristide Makricosta. Aristide is a really unsuitable lover for a spy. He’s master of ceremonies at the Bumble Bee Cabaret, a flam­boyant figure who just so happens to be a major player in Amberlough’s underground economy, a smuggler of drugs and refugees and stolen objects, a mover-and-fixer with a wicked sense of humour. Both Cyril and Aristide know about each other’s lives, but neither of them can give the other up – al­though, naturally, they’re not prepared to outright admit to anything so banal as love.

It’s fear for Aristide, as well as Cyril’s personal self-interest and physical cowardice, that leads Cyril into becoming a double agent for the Ospies after an undercover mission goes wrong. As much as anything else, Amberlough’s a novel about how human weaknesses and human selfishness lead people to work for goals that are going to hurt them.

There’s a third major character in Amberlough, Cordelia Lehane. Dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret, drug dealer, and determined survivor, she’s eventually caught up orbits of both Cyril and Aristide. As the iron fist of the fascist state closed around Amberlough’s throat, I found I ended up liking Cordelia best of the three: out of all of them, it turns out that Cordelia is the first to find – and hold – a line that she won’t cross.

Fear and love together turn Cyril into a traitor, love and hope mean Aristide keeps holding a torch for him, and love and vengeance turn Cordelia into the kind of woman who decides to blow up whole buildings.

Amberlough isn’t a cheerful book, but it has an amazing voice. Its spy-thriller twists and ever-growing tension combine to provide an extraordinarily entertaining ride. And I have to say: if this is her debut? I can’t wait to see what Donnelly does next.

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