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Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

9780765383815
From author Lara Elena Donnelly, a debut spy thriller as a gay double-agent schemes to protect his smuggler lover during the rise of a fascist government coup

Trust no one with anything – especially in Amberlough City.

Covert agent Cyril DePaul thinks he’s good at keeping secrets, especially from Aristide Makricosta. They suit each other: Aristide turns a blind eye to Cyril’s clandestine affairs, and Cyril keeps his lover’s moonlighting job as a smuggler under wraps.

Cyril participates on a mission that leads to disastrous results, leaving smoke from various political fires smoldering throughout the city. Shielding Aristide from the expected fallout isn’t easy, though, for he refuses to let anything – not the crooked city police or the mounting rage from radical conservatives – dictate his life.

Enter streetwise Cordelia Lehane, a top dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Aristide’s runner, who could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means — and people — necessary. Including each other.

Combining the espionage thrills of le Carré with the allure of an alternate vintage era, Amberlough will thoroughly seduce and enthrall you.
~~~~~
Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough takes as its very obvious touchstone the musical Cabaret: the (ultimately resistible, if one would only try) rise of fascism as backdrop to a hedonistic foreground refusing to engage with politics. She goes a different direction in some regards, but how well does it work…?

Amberlough, from the start, runs three parallel plotlines. The first concerns Cyril DePaul, intelligence agent for the regionalist government of Amberlough turned, in the wake of being blown, into a double-agent for the nationalist, fascist One State Party (Ospies); his personal libertine lifestyle and his political acumen, as well as his abilities as an agent, all become both useful tools and liabilities across the course of his plot. The one problem with Donnelly’s portrayal of Cyril is that much as she tells us he used to be an excellent agent in the past, we never see any evidence of this in the present; no part of Cyril’s conduct in the novel gives us any hint of this excellent espionage that we’re told is part of his backstory.

The second major plotline is that of Aristide Makricosta, smuggler, libertine, drag queen and Cyril’s lover, at the start of Amberlough. He’s got an interesting plotline of his own, mostly revolving around dealing with the fallout of Cyril’s espionage work and the rise of the Ospies; we see a certain amount of ruthless illegal trade and dealing, and some excellent intelligence work, from Ari, and Donnelly really gives him a dark edge. He shines most brightly, though, on the stage and in the sections where he is dressing up, whether in drag or in civvies but designed to shine; Ari is a performer, and Amberlough gives him ample stages, large and small, intimate and personal or broad and general, and Donnelly relishes giving us his performances.

The third character through whose eyes we see this resistible, even if relatively unresisted, rise of fascism, is Cordelia Lehane, stripper at the same cabaret as Ari; indeed, their joint act, involving both dragging up, is the star of the show. Cordelia is an interesting character in Donnelly’s hands; through the course of Amberlough, she is by turns unfaithful lover, drug dealer, cabaret dancer, resistance runner, willing beard, and ends up… well, that would be spoiling things. Her character development is fascinating, as we see her realise how attached to certain people and places she really is, and as that affects her interactions with the world; Cordelia is where Donnelly really shows us what she can do in terms of taking a relatively simply character and then drawing them out to be so much more than that, and so much more interesting, in part by simply making clear to the readers her greater attachments.

The politics of writing a novel are often fraught, but one can only presume that was especially the case with Amberlough. This is very much a novel about the rise of fascism; all three characters’ plotlines are centred on the rise of the Ospies, whose very name is reminiscent of those fascists who cast their long shadow over all who came after, the Nazis. It’s unfortunate that much of the political machinations happen off-stage; Donnelly has a tendency to jump-cut past what one might regard as some of the more fascinating elements of the plot, tangles which the reader might enjoy moving through, rather than just seeing the consequences of. As it is, most of the political events happen off-stage, and inexplicably, and we see their consequences, instead of the events themselves; that’s not an entirely satisfactory way to write the book and ends up leaving Amberlough plot feeling a little empty and underbaked.

The setting deserves at least as much attention as the plot, since Donnelly clearly gave it at least as much lavishment. Amberlough is mainly set in the titular city, although it ranges outside that briefly to various places and refers to more; the city of Amberlough is a gloriously louche, corrupt, decadent place that really springs to life off the page, a kind of mash-up of Weimar Berlin with all the cliches of Prohibition-era Chicago, with an almost dieselpunk approach to technology. Brought to life by a mix of beautiful descriptions of the art deco and art nouveau architecture, the 1920s costuming, and the generous use of slang, Amberlough joins the ranks of settings which almost outshine the characters living in them, places like Peake’s Gormenghast or Tolkein’s Middle Earth; but rather than gothic or epic, the word that best describes Amberlough might be louche.

Amberlough is a very queer book; despite a relatively compact cast, of whom an even smaller number are actually depicted as queer, those characters are disproportionately on stage, and centred by the narrative. There are hints of more queerness around the edges of this plot – multiple-marriages and polyamory are part of the “old religion”, which the fascists oppose, and given the prominence of drag, hopefully there is more gender nonconformity to come in the auspices of the old religion in future books, necessary to tie up the fact that all three protagonists end their plots on very much cliffhangers.

Amberlough is, inevitably, not the perfect novel, if such a thing even exists; but Donnelly has produced a well-written and at times beautiful take on the themes of the rise of fascism and life under an oppressive government. The cliffhanger endings, and unresolved plots, will draw me into the sequel, but I’m hoping for slightly stronger plotting there.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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