by Lara Elena Donnelly
Cover Artist: Victo Ngai
Review by Katie Carmien
Tor Books Hardcover / eBook ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765383815
Date: 07 February 2017 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
In Amberlough City, the cosmopolitan jewel of the continent Gedda, all that glitters is not gold. The police run on bribes, the election is a question of who can buy more votes, and the fascist One State Party is rising. They want Gedda united under one rule--theirs.
Enter three very different people: Cyril DePaul, double-crossing intelligence agent; Aristide Makricosta, an equally beloved and scandalous performer who runs a smuggling ring on the side and Cyril's lover; and Cordelia Lehane, a savvy dancer who sells drugs part-time. When one of Cyril's operations goes disastrously wrong and the Ospies rise to power, the three of them will have to do whatever it takes to survive. No matter how much it might compromise them.
None of these characters are good people--and Donnelly makes the reader love them anyway. Whatever it is they do--drug-dealing, dragging innocent bystanders into their deadly power plays, turning double agent--she makes the reader see exactly why they do it. Half the time, one can't really blame them, and even when one can, Donnelly's made it very clear exactly why they're doing the stupid or morally questionable or impulsive things they do. That's not to say no one has good qualities; there's a lot to love in Aristide, Cordelia, and Cyril. But they all have hard choices to make, choices that grow harder as circumstances worsen, and Donnelly makes the reader feel that.
Donnelly's worldbuilding is also excellent. She draws heavily on history to create Amberlough and Gedda's sociopolitical landscape--the Ospies are nicknamed the "blackboots", which echos Mussolini's "blackshirts", for example. This has the effect of creating a society that feels very real and holds several parallels to our own, but with enough of an original flair to avoid being simply a repainted Weimar Berlin. While we only really get to see Amberlough, the details Donnelly seeds throughout the book make the world feel as huge as our own.
However, I'd like to see more of Aristide and Cyril before everything went to hell in a handbasket. Donnelly jumps pretty immediately into crisis mode from the ordinary picture she paints at the beginning, which also catapults them into crisis mode. As things were, I was invested in their relationship, but I think it would have even more impact if the reader has more time to see what it is they're fighting for. I really need more than a brief glimpse.
In short, Amberlough is a gorgeous melding of the spy and low-fantasy genre--although I'd recommend waiting until the sequel comes out for anyone who hates a lot of unanswered questions.