So I debated whether or not to even review this book because I think my net summary is “it wasn’t for me”. Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly, is the first book in The Amberlough Dossier, and has a cool concept: fantasy spy thriller that revolves around a cabaret. I am really big on the fantasy spy novels so I decided to check it out… and found that I didn’t like a lot of things I probably should have expected from the synopsis. I will go into all of this in detail, but let’s first talk about the plot.
Amberlough follows three character POVs: Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia. They live in a time of upheaval and change in the city of Amberlough and all have connections to the Bee cabaret. Cyril is a government spy (and patron of the Bee), taken off active duty for a traumatic injury, but is being sent back out in the field. Aristide is a showman at the Bee at night, and a smuggler by… also night, he doesn’t have a lot of work/life balance. Cordelia is a dancer at the Bee and is looking to move up in a turbulent world. All of them are dealing with the fact that a right wing religious movement is sweeping through Amberlough and trying to destroy their heathen lifestyles.
A major pillar of the book’s story is that Cyril and Aristide are in love, but their jobs keep either of them from admitting it to one another. A lot of people I talked to found this really romantic, but I frankly found it frustrating that their entire stories could be resolved by the two of them admitting they had feelings for one another. Cordelia is the odd man (woman) out here. Her story felt a little aimless at the start, but midway through she finds herself embroiled with the underground politics that Cyril and Aristide participate in. In terms of character writing, both Aristide and Cordelia were a lot of fun – but Cyril was not amazing. He constantly feels like he is just reacting (poorly) to the world around him and he didn’t do a lot to get me routing for him other than dating Aristide (which made me want him to survive only to keep Aristide happy).
For a book that promised a fantasy spy thriller, there was surprisingly little of either. The only real fantasy element of the book is that it takes place in a different world, but it is clearly based on pre-Nazi Germany and I don’t really get why the author didn’t just write a more standard fiction. There were a few moments of spy craft, in particular a 30 page stint of Cyril in the field. However, most of the book is really about talking about talking about the threat of Nazis and then trying to not die to Nazis. There was also an aggressive amount of sex in the books. I don’t really know what I expected when I picked up a book surrounding cabaret, so this one is on me, but it felt like so much page space was devoted to sex scenes that there was not enough room to do other things like develop the plot.
Despite all these comments, I did stick with Amberlough to the end out of a curiosity to see what happened to the characters. Cordelia in particular seems like she is being set up to become someone incredible and I am pretty curious to see where her story goes (and she might be enough to get me to pick up book two). She had some really nice character development over the course of the book and she seems like a clever girl with a lot of potential to wreak havoc during a Nazi occupation. However, Cyril feels kind of like a millstone around my neck and will likely keep me from continuing with the series. I am sure that there are a number of people out there who will love this, but sometimes it is important to know when to look at something and say “this isn’t for me”.
Rating: Amberlough – 5.0/10