Review: Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

Le Carré meets Cabaret in this debut spy thriller as a gay double-agent schemes to protect his smuggler lover during the rise of a fascist government coup

Welcome to Amberlough City, the illustrious but corrupt cosmopolitan beacon of Gedda. The radical One State Party — nicknamed the Ospies — is gaining popular support to unite Gedda's four municipal governments under an ironclad, socially-conservative vision.

Not everyone agrees with the Ospies' philosophy, including master spy Cyril DePaul and his lover Aristide Makricosta, smuggler and emcee at the popular Bumble Bee Cabaret. When Cyril's cover is blown on a mission, however, he must become a turncoat in exchange for his life. Returning to Amberlough under the Ospies' watchful eye, Cyril enters a complex game of deception. One of his concerns is safeguarding Aristide, who refuses to let anyone – the crooked city police or the homophobic Ospies – dictate his life.

Enter streetwise Cordelia Lehane, top dancer at the Bee and Aristide’s runner, who could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means — and people — necessary. Including each other.


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.



  1. This one has been on my wishlist for a bit!!! Looks like I'll be doing the one-click thing shortly.

    1. Have your tissues ready, Harper. I legit had a crying headache at the end. I'll be back for Part 2, though. Hide & watch me. lol