Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Setting: fantastical version of Weimar (pre-WWII) Germany, roughly. Amberlough is a Big City in Gedda, full of Big City Dwellers who love their city life. There is beauty, art, and political struggles. There is graft, there is solidarity, there is a major spy agency.
Cyril DePaul is a spy for the agency, whose last mission went really sideways. So now it’s desk duty, mostly. He’s sleeping with his current target, burlesque performer/smuggler Aristide Makricosta, but they are :really: good at compartmentalizing. Which works well until DePaul’s next assignment, which involves working to infiltrate the Ospies, a “nation first” political party that is trying to unify Gedda into some sort of magical place where people who don’t fit their traditional notions of life … disappear. Aristide convinces his coworker at the Bee (the Burlesque club), Cordelia, to serve as a visible companion to Cyril, bolstering his case as an Ospie convert.
That’s when things get interesting.
This is a pretty good queer spy thriller. Cyril and Aristide plot and counter-plot, trying to save each other and, incidentally themselves, with … varying results. Cordelia is also a survivor, and she makes her own choices, which intersect with Cyril and Aristide’s plans in interesting ways.
Because plans don’t always work. Yet the way that these multiple different attempts to solve the problem at hand–and guarantee the survival of the folks in the middle of it– intersect in ways that make perfect, believable, messy human sense.
It’s an even better meditation on constructed selves, and the things that we do and the choices that we make to survive. At what point does our need for survival overrule our need for community? Is it worth surviving individually when your community doesn’t? When does the constructed version of ourselves become the “real” us? Can we go back to the people that we once were? Would we WANT to? What is the value of art and performance? Can art be an act of resistance? Is art political?
These are all important questions, and Amberlough gives us its own answers, wrapped in a tale of desperation, affection, defiance, and love among some truly spectacular, well crafted characters.
I loved this novel, and I can’t wait to read book 2, to see what happened to Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia.
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