Review: Amberlough, Lara Elena Donnelly

Oh marvelous Audra of Unabridged Chick for putting me onto Amberlough by describing it (accurately) as “a gay spy thriller that’s allegedly Le Carre meets Cabaret.” This is a terrific and accurate description, although Cabaret is already pretty gay. Please hold while I go down a rabbit hole of watching YouTube videos from Cabaret and then conclude that this piecemeal bullshit is no good and I need to watch the movie again in its entirety. Enjoy this book cover while you’re waiting.


Cyril De Paul is a half-hearted spy for the government of Amberlough, one of four loosely affiliated governments in Gedda. His target (and lover) is Aristide Makricosta, a louche and lovely smuggler and emcee at the Bumble Bee Cabaret. And Cordelia Lehane (don’t you love everyone’s name?) is a dancer at the Bee and a small-time drug smuggler looking to improve her lot. All three of them get caught up in politics when Cyril’s cover is blown and he has to turn spy for the conservative (read: fascist) One State Party that’s threatening to gain control over all of Gedda.

One good thing about Amberlough, a book I enjoyed tremendously and hope you will all read so that the sales are good and we get a sequel,1 is that it’s one of those books you can tell pretty quickly if you’re going to like it or not. As with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, if you find the aesthetic to your taste after the first few chapters — even if you are thinking “there are a lot of geopolitics happening here” — you’re going to like the book. Donnelly lays out the geopolitics early and then gets on with the aesthetic, which I have seen described most accurately as “vintage-glam spy thriller.” Here are the first four chapters for your delectation and delight.

Another A+ thing about Amberlough is its high degree of sex positivity. Cordelia sleeps with who she wants to sleep with and refuses to feel guilty about it, and the book never asks her to. Aristide and Cyril bang on every available surface and sometimes even have slightly kinky sex, which like — this is weird, but I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered two characters having fun, matter-of-factly kinky sex outside of a romance novel? I rarely enough encounter scenes of characters having fun sex at all outside of romance novels, to be honest. What gives, literature? Amberlough is making you look bad!

And now for a spoilery warning. If you watched Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and had a minor nervous breakdown in the movie theater along the lines of oh my God what are we going to do what are we going to do oh God what are we going to do (not that I did ha ha no), be prepared to feel something similar when you get to the end of Amberlough. Things are not looking swell for our heroes at the end of Amberlough, although the nice thing is that you’ve spent enough time with them to have a pretty fair sense of how thoroughly each of them is going to fuck shit up for the Ospies after the end of the book. But still. Rogue One minor nervous breakdown warning.

In short, I loved this book, and I can’t wait for you to read it too! Get on it so you can come back and talk to me about it!

  1. Cause yo, this ending is DARK.
  • Jeanne

    Mmm, fun and a dark side. Sounds almost irresistible.

  • This sounds like a lot of fun. A dark ending. Weird geopolitics. Characters who don’t kowtow to convention. Yep. Totally my bag.

    • It really is so much fun! The dark ending is very bleak indeed, but the author has sequels planned, and the reading experience overall is extremely fun. Good worldbuilding!

  • CoolCurry

    I have a copy! I’m just waiting until after exams to get to it.

  • Aarti

    Ooooh, I LOVE the cover and the title and all the characters’ names! Not sure how I missed this on Audra’s blog, so I’m glad you shared it here!

    • The character names are great. I love how perfectly she made all those names feel like an important part of her worldbuilding. I think you’d dig this book, friend!

  • Laila@BigReadingLife

    This sounds fun. I love your tags. I love “not fantasy but set in a world that’s not our world” books. And I’m so glad you’re having a good reading year!

    • Have you read many books that are not fantasy but are set in worlds not our own? Cause I’d be interested to get your recs in that subgenre! I don’t think I’ve read many.

      • Laila@BigReadingLife

        I was thinking about Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy, and Kelly Link’s short stories. American Gods by Gaiman, would that count? I guess these are all what I term “speculative” fiction, and it’s a very fluid line between fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, hard to define precisely.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    The cover alone is pretty amazing! I am so very tempted even though spies aren’t usually my thing.

  • Ahhh you had me until the Rogue One comparison. But yes (re: enjoyable sex in lit), I’ve noticed that too! I recently read a work of Lit fic—a rarity for me—and literally every sexual scene was nonconsensual

  • Bride of the Book God

    Aargh, this is on my wishlist. Why didn’t I notice your review before I started my no spend month??

  • Soooooooooooooooo glad you loved it! Had to return it before I could really dig in, so am back on waitlist but contemplating just buying.

  • Citizen Reader

    Can you believe I’ve never seen the movie Cabaret? I know, RIGHT? What have I been doing. I will watch that and then work my way up to this book, which sounds excellent!

  • Ooh, I hadn’t heard of this one but now I’ve read part of the first chapter via your link, and I think I would like it! Makes me think a bit Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy, moodwise.