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A double-agent sacrifices all his ideals in order to save his smuggler lover before a government coup takes over their decadent city in Lara Elena Donnelly’s glam spy thriller debut, now a Nebula finalist for Best Novel!


The Smuggler: By day, Aristide Makricosta is the emcee for Amberlough City’s top nightclub. By night, he moves drugs and refugees under the noses of crooked cops.

The Spy: Covert agent Cyril DePaul thinks he’s good at keeping secrets, but after a disastrous mission abroad, he makes a dangerous choice to protect himself…and hopefully Aristide too.

The Dancer: Streetwise Cordelia Lehane, burlesque performer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Aristide’s runner, could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted.

As the twinkling marquees lights yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means — and people — necessary. Including each other.

416 pages, Paperback

First published February 7, 2017

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About the author

Lara Elena Donnelly

10 books388 followers
Lara Elena Donnelly is the author of the Nebula, Lambda, and Locus-nominated trilogy The Amberlough Dossier, as well as short fiction and poetry appearing in venues including Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Nightmare, and Uncanny.

Lara has taught in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, as well as the Catapult Workshop in New York. She is a graduate of the Clarion and Alpha writers’ workshops, and has served as on-site staff at the latter, mentoring amazing teens who will someday take over the world of SFF.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 895 reviews
Profile Image for Elle (ellexamines).
1,084 reviews17.5k followers
July 1, 2019
This was like watching a slow-motion train wreck, and I loved it.

Amberlough follows a city set in a world paralleling 1920s counterculture as it slowly falls under the power of a fascist sect. But rather than focusing on the power plays of that fascist movement, this novel goes a lot more in-depth; it focuses on just three of the characters affected by the new regime, and how they react to the disappearances, the burgeoning fear.

And I think this is the narrative choice that makes the whole book so haunting. As the novel builds up, we get the sense that there’s a lot more going on than what these three characters see, and indeed there is. But this small scope feels like a far more relavant portrayal of a society in crisis. You don’t always know your life is about to be wrecked until it is. By focusing only on a few characters, this story feels so much more real.

It helps that these three characters are such lovable disasters.
✔Cyril – gay disaster. Tries to play everyone but really just succeeds in falling in love with someone he definitely should not fall in love with and is really mad about it. “congratulations you played yourself” -me
✔Aristide – literal icon, constantly kind of buzzed but plays it off as if he’s just living his life, we love him
✔Cordelia – absolute disaster and doesn’t even try to hide it. character development is learning to sort of care that she’s a disaster. So proud of her.

What’s so hard is this whole book is like watching an oncoming disaster, and you don’t want it to happen. Sure, these characters are messy, and not doing so well in their personal relationships or their lives in general. But they’re living in a world that is not as dangerous as it could be. Cyril and Ari are fairly open about their relationship, despite some homophobia in the society; the Ospies change that.

Given the current U.S. political climate, perhaps it’s important to remember how easily a society can fall.

Anyway, I loved this, and I can’t wait to read and love the next two books. When are they coming out again?

series reviews: Amberlough | Armistice | Amnesty

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Profile Image for Philip.
500 reviews673 followers
January 4, 2019
1.5ish stars.

I understand why authors choose to set their stories in alternate worlds with invented names and places. It makes their stories seem universal, like they could take place anywhere, at any time. However, this so obviously parallels the Weimar Republic that I couldn't think of it as being anything else. All of the confusing info dumps of cities and events could have been avoided by just using the word Nazi. I have a hard time with the branding of a book as fantasy when it takes place in a world that could just have easily been our own, without any other fantastical elements.

Anyway, as far as the story itself, for a spy thriller with drug dealers and double agents, strippers and smugglers, it's kind of a snooze-fest. It's not thrilling, it's not mysterious, it's not romantic, it's not sexy. Aristide and Cordelia do make great characters. They're slick, audacious, and a little morally icky in the best way. Then there's Cyril. He's the worst. His only personality trait is that he sucks. I didn't believe for a second that he and Aristide had any chemistry or fondness for one another.

Mary Robinette Kowal does the audiobook narration very well. Usually I struggle with her as a narrator, but she does a great job voicing Aristide and Cordelia in particular.

With a much better plot, and a focus on Aristide and Cordelia alone, I'd read another book. Otherwise, I'll just stare at this fantastic cover art.

Posted in Mr. Philip's Library
Profile Image for Samantha.
417 reviews16.7k followers
December 13, 2019
I wasn’t sure I’d be into this at first (and I still got a bit lost with some of the political maneuvering at times) but the characters quickly pulled me in. That, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s audiobook performance is superb. The “noirpunk” gay spy cabaret story I didn’t know I needed.
Profile Image for Althea Ann.
2,232 reviews1,016 followers
July 12, 2017
Read for book club.

An extremely impressive debut novel! Imagine if Ellen Kushner's 'Riverside' novels were set in an analogue of 1920's Germany?

I do think that all fans of Kushner's 'Swordspoint' &c. will love this book. It also does a great job of introducing its world and characters without unnecessarily driving home the parallels between the fantasy setting and that of the Weimar Republic and the impending rise of fascism. It's not a 1:1 correspondence; there are also elements of the Balkans, and wholly original elements of the world. All of it emerges organically from the story's progression.

The story involves spies and double agents at a popular decadent nightclub; and the complexities and betrayals spawned by the intersection of inclination and obligation. I didn't find any of the characters to be sympathetic - but they were all interesting.

I will, without a doubt, be reading the sequel - which I hear has already been submitted to the publisher! ;-)
Profile Image for Optimist ♰King's Wench♰.
1,765 reviews3,851 followers
May 22, 2017

True story. I chose this book because the blurb sounded like MMF with espionage and what's better than that? It is not MMF, just so you know. I think Amberlough should be categorized as gay lit which typically connotes to me a lack of romance. It's true, Amberlough doesn't focus on a romantic plotline per se, but the relationship between Cyril and Aristide is one of the most heartbreakingly romantic and timeless ones I've ever read. They're rarely together but tethered regardless of time or distance.

Amberlough definitively is a wonderful melange of an alternate universe with historical undertones and contemporary sociopolitical overtones. It's magnificently written-evocative, emotive and quieting bewitching. These three characters are beautifully crafted, complex and nuanced, as are the secondary cast all of whom play their roles impeccably. They are flawed, some deeply so, but they were so very affecting.

Aristide Makricosta was my favorite, though.

Aristide is one of those characters that draws me in like a moth to a flame and it's not just because he's a drag queen. He's unscrupulous yet trustworthy, manipulative yet honest, aloof yet caring-a classic paradoxical character. He's got his fingers on the pulse of Amberlough and is whip smart. I think the only person he lets in even to a degree is Cyril.

Cyril Depaul is his lover and a spy. His past is somewhat murky but on a mission he was compromised, nearly killed. Understandably shaken he has been relegated to desk duty since. Nevertheless he's chosen to go undercover for another mission in Ospie held territory just prior to a momentous election and everything goes to shit. Literally. I empathized with Cyril. I didn't always agree with him, but his rationale is undeniably pure, or at least, pragmatic.

When he returns to Gedda Aristide sets him up with Cordelia Lehane. She's his beard to pass Ospie inspection, for all intents and purposes and unbeknownst to her. She is a firecracker and figures out quickly that Cyril isn't interested thus they become friends. She's streetwise, cunning and she'll do what she has to do to survive. Brash and maybe a little uncouth but she makes no apologies for who or what she is and I liked her chutzpah.

This will likely shock no one but Amberlough, in my mind, became pre-WWII Paris-hedonistic and fabulous. Amberlough and, in particular The Bee, are lively, colorful, artistic and chockablock with Bohemians. But with that sort of freedom and vitality there's always a dark underbelly and a conservative faction ready to rally the disenchanted. The Ospies are eerily reminiscent of the Nazi rise to power just prior to occupying France for four long years in that they surround Gedda. The Ospies rule with an iron fist and have zero tolerance for anything or anyone they perceive as deviant. Some Amberlinians can see the handwriting on the wall while others are caught unawares, peaceably living their lives while something wicked this way comes.

Donnelly did a brilliant job contrasting the lush colors of Amberlough with the dreary, lifeless gray of the Ospies. The occupation divested France of it's rosy hue and its joie de vivre as is the Ospies' objective in Amberlough. They are myopic and their laws draconian, but through those long years of occupation the French Resistance held out hope for a better tomorrow, maintaining a covert offensive against the occupation and Amberlough seems to have a similar fortitude. Amberlough may have lost the battle but the war is far from over.

Words of caution: there is on page torture and violence. It gets ugly as all wars do.

I snooped and it seems this will become a trilogy. I will be there. I will gird myself. I will remain optimistic. I will remember that it's always darkest before the dawn. I will hope Donnelly doesn't crush me again.

For a book that started off slow it certainly left an impression . After finishing it I felt fragile and raw yet paradoxically hopeful and above all, heartbroken. I do not cry, but I cried. Ugly cried. There was just a little... nothing, a moment in a day. It truly was nothing I didn't know already anyway, but that drop of sand in the hourglass at the 75% mark was the beginning of the gutting process. So, yeah. Have tissues handy. It's so worth it, though. I wouldn't change a thing and I'm glad my own deviance brought this incredible book into my life.


A review copy was provided.
Profile Image for Seth Dickinson.
Author 41 books1,500 followers
February 10, 2017
Fascism's come to glittering cosmopolitan Amberlough, and as the One State Party looms over the city of long good nights, all the dancers and smugglers and politicians face a choice: bargain to survive, or fight and die?

Amberlough is a tryst between John le Carre's grey-coated spies and Cabaret's end-of-an-era seedy delights: the whole city's going to have one drink too many, because it doesn't want to go to sleep and face the jackboots tomorrow. Read this book if you love smugglers, strippers, spies and smoky bourbon in a city like Weimar Berlin, everyone desperately passionate and horribly hungover, all of them trying to keep their footing in a world that's changing too fast.

Cyril dePaul is a spy who's not just compromised but well and fully leveraged, thanks: caught between his duty to his masters in Amberlough, his affair with glamorous smuggler Aristide, and other, darker allegiances. Cyril's a fascinating dude, because he's caught right where every one of us would be if we realized fascism was coming - trying to protect his people, trying to be better than he is, tortured by the fear that he's giving his soul away to save his comforts, certain that he'll be destroyed in an instant if he makes one error. Cyril's lover Aristide's coworker at the Bumble Bee Cabaret - and maybe the key to Cyril's salvation - is Cordelia Lehane, a born-to-nothing dancer and drugrunner who wants more than she's got and knows how to use people to get it. As the cold creeps in, Aristide, Cyril, and Cordelia have to turn to - and against - each other to survive in the new regime.

Amberlough is a lush, lovely crawl through the high society parties, dockside dens and smoky headquarters of a city as real as yours - Donnelly's prose is (to steal from the jacket copy) ravishing. I never knew there were so many perfectly specific words for luxury! And under the glitz there's a steel bar of terror, a lever pushing everyone to the edge - because some people see Amberlough's effusive corrupt decadent liveliness as rot, and they won't stop cutting until the city and the nation are theirs.

Sit at the dark end of the bar, tip the tuxedoed woman who mixes your cocktail, and wait for your contact to pass you a brown envelope with the names of the friends you're going to betray tomorrow. Consider: which people on that list can you afford to save? And what's it going to cost you?

Read this book, look up, and think about what you'd do if you were Cyril or Cordelia. Pray you don't have to find out.
Profile Image for Lindsay.
1,263 reviews222 followers
May 18, 2017
An interesting study in ambiguous characters of the nightclub scene in an alternate world similar to 1930s Europe as the Nazis come to power.

Cyril DePaul is an intelligence operative working for the Amberlough government. One of his roles is to investigate smuggling, which is a bit unfortunate because his lover, Aristide Makricosta, has a side job as a local kingpin in the smuggling racket. Aristide's other job is as a stripper and performer at the Busy Bee nightclub where he's a local celebrity. Also at the Busy Bee is Cordelia Lehane, a stripper and drug-dealer who is sleeping with the owner of the Bee as well as the Bee's comedian.

The One State Party (referred to as the Ospies) have just risen to power in a neighboring country/state and clearly hope to come to power in Amberlough as well. The Ospies are ultra-conservative and their rise in Amberlough would make Aristide and Cyrl's relationship a problem and put Cordelia and the Busy Bees whole operation out of business. What follows is a careful study of what you do to survive, what you'll do to defend the things you love and ambiguity at all levels.

The prose is beautiful and the characters very interesting, but I really don't understand why this book exists. To be honest, I think it's because the actual real world features that this book draws on so heavily didn't all quite line up properly the way the author wanted to tell the story. The Ospies for instance, are so clearly Nazis that actually calling them Nazis wouldn't have felt out of place. They even have a symbol which is reminiscent of a swastika. The nightclub scene could be 30s Paris, although the language is New York or Chicago. There's even an analogue to Jewish people for the Ospies to hate. So it's a world that isn't our world, but is exactly like our world with no fantastic elements.

It kind of feels like the author had a story in mind for a hypothetical German 1930s nightclub epic but on researching couldn't find anything that matched the story she had in mind, so just decided to rename everything.

I can appreciate that it might be a good book, and it is an interesting story, but it really wasn't for me.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 6 books3,974 followers
February 9, 2019
If I'm being honest, this is more of a 3.5 for me, not having all that much to do as a Fantasy except with changed names and places hiding the fact this may as well be Casablanca. What? Nazis, spy work, sharp, sometimes witty, dialogue? Yep.

I also enjoyed (and sometimes didn't) the deep immersion in the acting scene. For me, it was best when it was scathing quips and a bit boring when it seemed to drag the slow burn of this plot to rather nowhere places.

The fact is, this novel sinks or swims on your enjoyment of the characters. The gradual dissolution of people's lives here in Amberlough, whether straight or gay, rich or poor, will only mean something if you're deeply attached. The actual plot direction doesn't pick up until nearly the end when the losses stack up too high.

As I was reading this, I was somewhat reminded of Swordspoint. Any fans of that novel will definitely enjoy this. :)
Profile Image for BrokenTune.
750 reviews202 followers
June 18, 2018
On the face of it, I should love this novel: spies, cabaret, a setting that is an alternative take on the Weimar Republic... What's not to love, right?

However, the book just isn't working for me. I've tried to read this several times, but just get lost in the endless names and descriptions that seem to lead nowhere.

This morning, I spent a good hour and a half trying one last time if there was a way to get into the story, but all I am left with is a hankering for some original1920s/30s literature with its roots firmly placed in the Weimar Republic.

I'm not rating the book. I have a clear suspicion that it is not the book's fault that I prefer something closer to a feeling of authenticity than a pastiche any day.
Profile Image for Rachel (Kalanadi).
722 reviews1,401 followers
August 8, 2017
This had a slow beginning that took its time exploring the characters and building the plot. Then the second half hits and the world is on fire and it's beautiful and hurts. No happy ending. Can't wait for the sequel!
Profile Image for Baba Yaga Reads.
113 reviews1,533 followers
December 28, 2022
4.5 stars

The more I think about this book, the more I struggle to believe it’s a debut novel.
Donnelly is an exceptionally talented author and does her best to make sure every single detail of her book is polished and carefully executed, to the point that I have a hard time understanding why this series isn’t more popular in the book community.

Amberlough is set in an alternate 1930s Germany that is, predictably, about to be taken over by an ultra-nationalist fascist party. The story takes place in the city of Amberlough, a bustling metropolis brimming with music, color, and criminal activity. Everything about it feels realistic to the point that I can almost picture what it would be like to walk its streets. I know how its people dress, what they eat, what they accents sound like. I know where they work by day and party by night. Speaking of which: if you’re a fan of Cabaret, you’re bound to fall in love with this book’s depiction of early 20th century nightlife and cabaret shows. They’re incredibly fun to read, so much so that I wish someone turned this story into a movie just so I could watch them on screen.
What impressed me the most, however, was how well developed the political aspect of this world was. Donnelly creates a complex landscape where each country’s social, political, and economic struggles influence the plot on both a large and small scale, impacting the characters’ lives and decisions.

Speaking of characters: they're all garbage people, and I love them for it.
Seriously though: if you want to learn how to write realistic character motivation, get your hands on this book. It’s so refreshing to read a fantasy where people act like real, actual human beings, rather than puppets in the hands of an author who moves them around to advance the plot or fulfill readers’ desires. (Reader, this book will not fulfill your desires. It will hurt you. Consider this a warning.) The three protagonists are chain-smoking, binge-drinking, sexually promiscuous nightlife lovers whose moral compass is more than a little skewed. Don’t worry, though — the villains are so horribly and realistically evil that you will inevitably find yourself cheering for the “good guys”. Also, one of them is a drag queen with a black belt in sarcasm. Need I say more?

In terms of plot, this book is incredibly intricate and at times hard to follow. It is, after all, a spy thriller whose main characters are constantly meddling with international politics and double-crossing each other. No matter how closely you try to follow the story, you will end up feeling confused at some point—and that’s okay. Even if you don’t grasp every single detail, things will still make sense in the end.

Donnelly’s prose is rich, lush, and alluring; her descriptions are immersive, her dialogue is witty, and her clever turns of phrase made me smirk several times while reading. Even when the pacing was lagging or I couldn’t figure out what exactly was going on, I still had fun following the characters’ interactions and losing myself in this world. It’s hard to believe a 25-year-old wrote this, and I can’t wait to see how her craft is going to improve in the sequels.
Profile Image for Emily .
729 reviews74 followers
April 5, 2017
Fantastic! I have no idea where I heard about this book, but it was amazing. Think, "art-deco-era meets spy-thriller meets big-brother/1984." It's a fantasy book but no magic - set in a world that is could be ours, but isn't (corrupt elections, dirty government officials trying to make everyone conform to their moral standards, racism , etc.)

The book started out a bit confusing - a lot of names, geography and terms that are unfamiliar, but stick with it, it all comes together pretty quickly. By the end I had a pit in my stomach, and I was on edge every time I turned the page. So good!

The story was great, the characters were different and interesting, and best of all I wasn't able to predict a lot of the things that happened.

If I had one criticism it would be that I wasn't totally satisfied with the ending, but I looked at the authors website and this is being made into a trilogy so I guess I'll get my closure later. Although, now I've inadvertently broken my golden rule of book reading - no unfinished series. Worth it though!
Profile Image for Mel.
648 reviews78 followers
February 15, 2017
From the very beginning this book was a struggle for me. Places, names, parties, countries are dropped in every other sentence without any explanation whatsoever. Even whole paragraphs like this are not a rare thing:

“Be serious, DePaul. The Ospies want Amberlough knocked down—they think we’re impeding trade, sacrificing Gedda for the sake of state interest. Pinegrove and Moritz have already endorsed Acherby, and intelligence out of both capitals says they won’t stop there. They want to impeach Josiah.”

And I didn’t understand anymore than you just did… Whom are they talking about? It’s just names with no meaning. Nothing is explained and the way it is done, world building doesn’t happen because all I’m left with are question marks. I found the first 10% especially tiring because of this.

After the 120 and something pages that I have read, I still have no idea what the world is like. How is the climate, for example? How do the buildings and streets look? Is there any green or parks? How does it smell? What clothes do people wear and what’s the food like?

The same superficial treatment can be found in the creation of the characters. At least concerning their inner perspective. They have nearly to no history. I don’t know what motivates them and their actions. I can’t get a grasp on the relationship between Cyril and Ari, either. Cordelia, while a promising, take-no-shit female character, so far remains obscure as well.

Now, the plot. I hear this book is a thrilling spy novel. It is not. It is a bore. There is absolutely nothing thrilling about it, reason being that the reader doesn’t know enough of what is going on to actually care about anything. It seems there is some political intrigue going on, but whatever… There are maybe three short scenes here that kept me going because I could glimpse a little bit of spark between the characters and after 25% it seemed that finally something was happening, but, alas, promises, promises…

It’s been an ordeal, a struggle, and I simply cannot bring myself to pick this book up again.

Genre: Spy Thriller, Romance
Tags: M/M Pairing, Gay Character, Bisexual Character, Heterosexual Character, Alternate Universe
Rating: dnf @34%
Blog: Review for Just Love
Disclosure: ARC for Review

Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews127k followers
October 13, 2016
Even though this book isn’t coming out until next Winter, it needs to be on your “To Buy,” list ASAP! John Le Carre and Cabaret set in a secondary fantasy world, Donnelly’s debut novel is set in the decadent, whirlwind city of Amberlough, whose lifestyle of luxury and indulgence have fueled the fire of the One State Party (Ospies), a new radically conservative fascist faction on the rise, looking to pluck Amberlough’s sweetness away and reclaim the city for their nationalist vision. Cyril DePaul, an agent with Amberlough’s central intelligence, gets made while trying to infiltrate the Ospies, and must betray his nation, the man he loves, and his ideals if he wishes to survive. Meanwhile, Cyril’s lover, the smuggler and performer Aristide Makricosta, must do his best to keep Amberlough and Cyril from both falling apart at the hands of the Ospies. Enter Cordelia Lehane, a fellow performer at the renowned Bumble Bee Cabaret, who may just be the answer both men need for their plans to come to fruition. Through these three amazingly complex and deep characters, Donnelly weaves a beautiful world of music, culture, fascism, revolution, love, longing, history, and taking a stand for what you believe in. A timely novel exploring the roots of hatred, nationalism, and fascism, while at the same time celebrating the diversity, love, romance, fashion, and joy the world is capable of producing, Donnelly’s Amberlough is a thrill and a wonder from start to finish, and is the gay fantasy spy novel you’ve been waiting for. You’re not going to want to miss this one, friends.

–Martin Cahill

from The Best Books We Read In September 2017: http://bookriot.com/2016/10/03/riot-r...
Profile Image for Nathan.
399 reviews123 followers
February 20, 2017
I was blessed with the oppurtunity to do a Q & A with Lara Elena Donnelly. She talks the timeliness of the story and inspirations among other things. Check it out!


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.
Profile Image for Nerily.
101 reviews675 followers
March 3, 2020
Anche in questo caso devo dire che capire qualcosa sarebbe stato carino.

Ma i protagonisti fanno schifo, quindi ci piace.
Cioè sono dei pessimi esseri umani, sul serio, fanno veramente schifo.

Ora ho un disperato bisogno del secondo, del terzo... E di un lieto fine. Perché anche la gente schifosa merita un lieto fine.
Profile Image for Acqua.
536 reviews190 followers
January 16, 2019
...I have a lot of feelings.
This was painful. And fun, but mostly painful.

Amberlough is the first book in The Amberlough Dossier, and it has three main PoVs: Aristide, who is a smuggler and emcee at the Bee Cabaret, Cyril, his lover, who is a double agent and spying on him, and Cordelia, a stripper at the Bee.

The beginning isn't exactly easy to get into - there's a lot information about politics, because this novel is about the rise of a fascist government - but after I understood what was happening I started loving the book, mostly because of the characters.
I didn't like Cordelia that much at first, as I didn't care about her two jealous lovers, but when she started to get involved into all the spy schemes, I liked her a lot more. She is the character who has the most development.
I can't say the same about Cyril, because the only thing he does better than spying is making all the worst decisions at the wrong moment and never growing a spine for the right reasons, but I liked him anyway. And even if I didn't always love him, I loved the relationship between him and Aristide, because it was a mess. I'm always here for that - even before the actual conflict started, these two were spying on each other, having sex and going through each other's things while they thought the other was sleeping.
Also, I loved Aristide, because I love intentionally overdramatic characters. They're my favorites.

Amberlough is worth the read just for how queer it is. It depicts the rise of a fascist government from the point of view of the people who are going to be affected the most by it - queer people, people of color, sex workers - and it is of course heartbreaking, but it manages to have really funny moments at the same time (it makes everything even more painful! Great!).
I also loved the atmosphere. If I'm going to read a book about everything going on fire, I want to care about the world, and beautiful aesthetics - this book has some really pretty descriptions - will do that.

I've seen some reviews say that they didn't understand why this was set in an imaginary world when there's no actual magic and Amberlough's situation mirrors what was happening in Europe in the 1920s-1930s. But that's where the similarities end: Amberlough is not, from both a cultural and political point of view, fascist Italy or nazi Germany, and the story would have been totally different if set there.
However, I think that Amberlough's economy should have been more damaged for this story to actually work. Yes, there are mentions of a past war that cost a lot to Gedda, but it wasn't explored enough, and extremisms do not rise out of nowhere.
(Also, there shouldn't be Afghans - the shawls - when your world has no Afghanistan, but this is nitpicking).

This novel is evil, and I'm glad I have the sequel, because it has one of the most cruel endings I've read in a while. I knew it wasn't going to end well, and that's why it took me a while to finish this. I didn't want to get there.

Content Warnings, because this book needs them: murder, death of a gay character, torture, death of a disabled character, explicit sex scenes (at least three of them), blackmail, all the bad stuff that comes with fascism.
Profile Image for Phee.
572 reviews58 followers
March 17, 2019
4.5 stars.

It has been such a terribly long time since I last fell so head over heels in love with a set of characters. Amberlough has taken me completely by surprise. It promised spy's, revolution, and a decadent era. On top of that I got espionage, steamy sex, sizzling romantic chemistry, dynamic characters, stage shows, thrilling action and political intrigue by the bucket load.

Amberlough is a fascinating book. At one time I would have devoured a book like this. But I savoured it and took my time. I've been trying to break my book inhaling habits and take my time more. That and I truly didn't want this to end.

All three of our main cast offered something different. Cordelia is our dancer, but that's not all she is. She's also a feisty, no nonsense woman who isn't afraid of getting shit done. Her expletives made me laugh out loud and I wish I could bottle up her charisma and confidence. "Mother's tits" is a new personal favourite of mine.

Cyril is our spy. He's keeping tabs on persons of interest in the criminal underworld and having an affair with someone he shouldn't. I really felt for Cyril. He gets himself into some awful situations, that's the sort of work hazard his profession gets him I suppose. He just tries to protect the people he loves (even the one he won't admit he loves). But he also has a cold and merciless side to him. Something he does later in the book sent actual chills down my spine. He knows what he's doing and knows his line of work like the back of his hand. Though he is a little rusty in the field these days.

Aristide is also part of the same theatre trope as Cordelia, whilst also being a smuggler. He has become one of my favourite literary characters if all time. He is flamboyant, charming, and terrifically good at getting what he wants. The scenes of him on stage were so easy to imagine. His acting is perfection and he knows exactly how to play a managerie of characters. His chemistry with Cyril had me from the get go. These two know how to rile each other up and my god did I need to fan myself when they were in bed. He is an absolute queen and I love him to pieces.

As for actual plot... Well it's better you just let the show play out. It does get very political and to be honest the is the only reason that this book isn't a full 5 star read for me. I don't think that the politics are explained very well. You pretty much get thrown into the deep end with this one. Whilst I get the jist of it I would probably be unable to explain it to someone. But aside from that, I adored every moment of reading this book.
I loved the diversity in this. It was refreshing to read a book with gay characters and not have to wait for the characters to fall for one another. The relationship is already established at the novel's opening. It's not afraid to be rough and heavy either. As I mentioned earlier.... Those sex scenes.

I'll be ordering the sequel straight away and I really can't wait to see what happens to these characters next. They have been through so damn much already. All of them have had their lives turned on their heads in various different ways. I need to experience more of this world. I would highly recommend this book. I can't believe that this isn't talked about more. It deserves all the love I can give it and so much more.
Profile Image for Emily.
296 reviews1,534 followers
June 14, 2018

It feels strange to say that about a book that chronicles the rise of a fascist regime, but it's true.

In this we follow three characters--a spy, a smuggler, and a cabaret dancer--and all of them are deeply, deeply flawed. I can see how that could be off-putting to some readings, but personally I think Donnelly hits it out of the park.

Aristides, the smuggler
Ari is a performer at heart, despite his underground empire in which he runs drugs, guns, and secrets. He's vain, arrogant, and I love him.

Cyril DePaul, the spy
Cyril is a coward. He's the epitome of white boy cowardice. But he's still an incredibly compelling character!!! And his character arc... WHEW BOY! A problematic fave

Cordelia Lehane, the cabaret dancer
I LOVED Cordelia. like Cecil, she gets a GREAT character arc. As she becomes more involved in the seedier elements of the underground, we watch her succeed, but also make some rookie mistakes. Watching her learn was a delight to read. She's tenacious, stubborn, loyal, and my favorite.

One thing that felt missing to me: colonialism. This book draws heavily on German history, particularly wartime history. The most obvious comparison would be to the rise of Naziism, and the culture of Amberlough City felt very reminiscent of Weimar-era Berlin. The book also draws on late 19th century and WWI history, which is particularly obvious in the fascist party. Their main goal is the union of all of the states of Gedda (which seems to be a loose confederation of states that mirrors the German principalities of the Holy Roman Empire).

Seeing these comparisons, I would have expected Donnelly to engage more with ideas of German colonialism. We see bits of white supremacy, which makes sense given this book is about the beginnings of a fascist regime where often overt racism and fear of ethnic cleansing still seem far-fetched to most citizens (see Jewish newspapers from the 1930s). However, rhetoric around colonization, expansionism, etc. was very present during the rise of nationalism during the periods from which Donnelly draws inspiration. We don't see that in the book. Perhaps Donnelly will engage with this more in book two, but I was a bit disappointed that we didn't see it here given colonialism's ties to German nationalistic rhetoric and politics.
Profile Image for vicky..
383 reviews154 followers
June 1, 2017
2.5 stars

Amberlough is an alternate vintage world with gender equality in which a gay spy has to protect his smuggler/cabaret performing lover while trying to stop a fascist group from taking over his country.

Read that sentence again.

Which is why I'm so disappointed. The writing is absolutely fantastic but in the first ten chapters the infodump is real. Names, places, conflicts, groups and more where constantly mentioned at an alarming rate.
If I hadn't read the blurb I wouldn't have had any idea of what was happening. I understand that a fascist group trying to take over needs names and conflicts, but how I'm supposed to care for the characters if I can't keep up with is going on?
Literally at one point, Cyril the spy leaves for another country in a dangerous mission and I had no idea of what he was doing there. Seriously.

Then I pretty much swapped all the names for 'evil nazis' at that improved my reading experience. I'm glad that I didn't dnf though, the characters all well developed and the writing is atmospheric.

This is Donnelly's debut novel and I hope she continuous writing because she is clearly talented.
Profile Image for Kitty G Books.
1,551 reviews2,937 followers
April 23, 2021
DNF @ p 69.

Just couldn't get into this. I picked it up for a change of pace after a high Fantasy sword and sorcery title, and it just didn't seem to satisfy what I wanted. I'd heard good things about it and yet the way it was written felt a bit trite and too focused on US-inspired politics for my liking.
Profile Image for Crini.
352 reviews411 followers
March 13, 2017
I absolutely ADORED this book. Very close to a 5-star read!

While I'm usually not big on more political stories, this one totally got away with it because the characters are just the best (more of the "unlikable" and very flawed kind which made me love them all the more and OMG shipping it so hard, MY FEELS) and it's very character driven.

It's set in a fictional, historical world that was a bit confusing at first but that was SO easy to ignore because I was already in love with these characters from page one. (and the map, YES, A MAP, helped a lot too). Double agent + smuggler + stripper was such a fun group of people to read about and made it hard to stop reading. I definitely need at least one more book about them!
Profile Image for RG.
3,090 reviews
April 24, 2018
1930s Europe, nazis, spys, deceit, ambiguity, sexuality. I guess this is what Donnelly had in mind when writing this book. Well written, slow plodding pace, a slow burn if you will but I felt it never got out of 3rd gear. Obviously not a historical account as this novel is a spy thriller/science fiction story, but very limited scifi. Its really just placed in a ficitional world because it wss easier to give the readers the authors viewpoint of what may have happened at that time. Not plot or character driven, splits the middle on this one, but not sure the fictional world was required. I think it would have made more sense or worked better as an alternative history story with the same plot/character elements. Will find its audience, just didnt excite me as much as I was hoping.
Profile Image for Teleseparatist.
1,003 reviews119 followers
March 20, 2018
In a country in which Ospies - Nazis - are taking over, three characters are finding out just what they are made of. Aristide, a self-made drag queen and smuggler, Cordelia, a dancer, and Cyril, a spy who'd much rather not do too much spying, see their paths cross in ways they couldn't have predicted.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this book. Coming in, I'd expected to enjoy the spying and star-crossed romance between the spy and his mark, and to be annoyed by the demimonde. Instead, I found the demimonde compelling: well-written and emotionally believable. And the spying... incompetent, and annoying, and dependent on coincidence. The star-crossed romance would have been much better if I wasn't so put-off by Cyril. I really wanted to like him, I was sure I would: a spy with PTSD who fears for his life sounds like the definition of an interesting character for me. Alas, the novel failed to make me care about him at all; instead I wanted him to just grow a spine. (And I could talk a lot more about it, and about the ending in particular, but it would end up spoilerish in the extreme.)

I was in two minds about the worldbuilding. I think the choice to set this in an alternate world with Nazis who are not Nazis is understandable, but it should have occasioned more world-building detail. Why do the Ospies hate difference (why this particular type)? What is the sameness they want? What drives people to support them? When using Nazis, one gets the answers to those handed in by history (they are using post-WWI resentment to stir nationalism; antisemitism has a long history in this part of Europe; they have an ideology to sell and Lebensraum to covet and enemies to fight and construct). In Amberlough some of the answers are implied, but a little too vague, a little too same-y, without providing the world with depth beyond the two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs whose shapes are close enough to attach to real-world equivalents but can't stand on their own. The villains have no depth. And the beginning of the book was full of information I found difficult to retain; and yet, the world didn't really feel terribly lived in; I didn't get the feel of its history and politics.

Where the novel does excel is the micro level, the personal level. The scenes of Cordelia becoming angry; Ari putting on his make-up, or taking off his make-up; the morning in the city, with crowds walking to their jobs or from their lovers' places; Mueller making his choices; the smells and tastes and the cabaret. I wish the spy plot had been half as good as those elements, because I would have been all over that book.

I do recommend this novel, but not unreservedly; still, I am very happy to have the ARC of the sequel waiting for me. I really and truly want to know what happened next.
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
996 reviews1,133 followers
April 29, 2021
I can be a bit of an easy mark sometimes when it comes to selling me books. Decopunk (I’ve also seen it described as noirpunk) retelling of the end of the Weimar Republic blurbed enthusiastically by Robert Jackson Bennett and Mary Robinette Kowal? Sold. See, how easy was that? The question now becomes: did I waste my money? As you might be able to guess by the 4 star rating, nope, I didn’t!

The city of Amberlough is a cultural and commercial hub, and while some political trouble seems to be brewing in Gedda, its citizens will not let that spoil their fun, especially not Aristide, Cyril and Cordelia. The first is a flamboyant stage performer who also has a lucrative smuggling side-line (glittery falsies don’t come cheap!), the second is a former spy on desk-duty – and Aristide’s lover, and the last is a burlesque dancer who lives by her own rules. But when Cyril is put back on active duty, he will find himself stuck between a rock and a hard place, and will have to make terrible choices as the menace of a coup threatens the life Amberlinians have loved and held dear for so long.

The world Donnelly reinvented is stylish and lush but still gritty and dangerous; of course, it’s really obvious that she is writing about the rise of fascism in Germany, but she changed enough details to make the world her own (and to avoid having to write around actual historical events), with a rich history we get an occasional glimpse at, and plenty of local slang – something I just love to encounter in speculative fiction. Besides, a spy story that includes absinthe and nipple pasties is just a delightful idea and I want more of that!

I have to say that I was very surprised by how the three main characters evolved as the story progressed. I didn’t really like any of them at the beginning, and by the end, they had gone through the ringer in so many ways, and come out the other side completely different; I wanted to applaud at the way Donnelly had shaped them and made me open my heart to those once silly and superficial people. There is something uplifting and wonderful about seeing characters who refuse to see their world be destroyed without doing something, even if the actions are somewhat questionable.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy! I don't think any wheels were reinvented here, but if you like fun, diverse, sensual stories with a twisted espionage plot, you might want to check this book out.
Profile Image for Ashley Marie .
1,241 reviews385 followers
March 24, 2021
I wasn't sure about this in the beginning; to be clear, it's not the book's fault that I couldn't mentally place it into a neat little genre box. This one might actually have everything -- it feels like a historical novel, in its analogous 1930s-esque setting, dripping whiskey and champagne and perfume and sweat all over the floorboards. The story is told against a vivid backdrop of hardscrabble theatre, charming restaurants, grimy apartments, and every single corner feels so utterly lived in that I'm almost at a loss to describe it. If not for the nightmare rise of the Ospies, Amberlough would be a city on my fictional-places-to-visit list, in a heartbeat.

The characters are absolutely magnetic, brought to life beautifully on the audiobook by Mary Robinette Kowal (whose work I also ((naturally)) still need to read). Aristede and Cordelia are incredible and I would love a few rounds of drinks with the pair of them; I'm sure they'd enjoy the local speakeasy we have here in town. Cyril is a cowardly bastard, but Donnelly imbues him with enough humanity that he doesn't come off as a cartoonish caricature. He's got more easily-identifiable flaws than the others, perhaps, but they are all of them flawed individuals, and they make the story tick.

Excited for Armistice!
Profile Image for Kaa.
560 reviews51 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
July 6, 2019
DNF @ 62%. I may come back to this eventually. The story should be exciting, but I'm not feeling very invested. Also, I'm really struggling I'm not saying it shouldn't be written about, but it's not the story for me right now.
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