Review of Amberlough–A Blend of Grit and Decadence

In my continued quest to branch out into new genres, I found a book so different from what I normally read that I hardly know how to describe it. Lara Elena Donnelley’s debut novel, Amberlough, is a fantasy political thriller with a noir aesthetic. I attended the launch party back in February and was immediately intrigued by the chapter Lara read to the crowd. Unusual and intriguing characters, a twisting and unpredictable plot, and a world so different and yet poignantly similar to our own—Amberlough is not to be missed if you’re looking for something new and unique to read!

Set in an alternate world reminiscent of 1920s America and Europe, the story follows government spy Cyril DePaul and his lover Aristide Makricosta—a male cabaret dancer who also happens to be a kingpin of organized crime in the city of Amerberlough. Their relationship is precarious and paradoxical enough to begin with, but when Cyril gets entangled in the machinations of a rising fascist coup, his connection to a flamboyant, drug-smuggling dancer could put them all in danger. Both men claw and connive, using whoever and whatever they can to try to save themselves and each other. Aristide’s fellow dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret, street-wise Cordelia Lehane, also gets dragged into the fray. But as the political situation in Amberlough begins to crumble, it becomes increasingly unlikely that any of them will make it out alive.

Lara Elena Donnelley is a master of world-building, and her words seem to effortlessly evoke a world as real as ours, but unlike any I have encountered before. I categorized this book as a fantasy since it’s set in an alternate world and even comes with a little map in the front, but it has none of the other typical fantasy elements—no magic, no supernatural creatures, and no grand quests or epic battles. But it does have fleshed-out geography with intricate back stories, histories, and political climates for each of the four states that make up the loose confederation known as Gedda. With its border disputes and domino-effect politics, it feels kind of like the closely-packed countries of Europe. The author adds even more depth to her created world through the interspersed slang and new vocabulary, whose meanings are self-evident without ponderous explication. Within twenty pages, you’ll feel fully immersed in her world and quite unwilling to leave it.

One of the amazing aspects of speculative fiction is that you can experiment and play with different aspects of society. In Amberlough this comes through in both the aesthetics and the gender politics. Both gender dynamics and gender presentation are slightly different in Donnelley’s world from what we may be used to. The director of Cyril’s government agency is a woman who has a male secretary, though the incoming Ospie government is less fond of having women in such positions of power. Similarly, queer characters are common and accepted in Amberlough, but they face persecution under Ospies. In fact, queerness is so essential to the story that it permeates the entire aesthetic of the novel. Aristide’s heavy makeup, affected speech, and flashy clothes are viewed as the height of attractiveness by male and female characters alike. And forming part of the backdrop of the city is a subculture of slightly butch women with shaved heads, known as Razors, that I hope we get to learn more about in future books. These characters populate a city where corruption, squalor, and violence obtrude into carefully cultivated worlds of extravagance, partying, and passion. Overall, the vivid imagery in Amberlough expertly blends the gritty and the decadent and helps to reinforce the central themes of the novel.

Even though it’s not quite gothic in the traditional sense, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Amberlough. If you do, be sure to let me know what you think in the comments! You can buy Amberlough from a local independent bookstore and support The Gothic Library in the process by clicking on the IndieBound affiliate link below:
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