Lara Elena Donnelly’s 2017 Amberlough is the first volume in her Amberlough Dossier secondary-world science fiction dystopia.
From one perspective, Amberlough City is a cosmopolitan, sophisticated city, home to great art and refined culture. From another point of view — that of the puritanical One State Party — it typifies all that is wrong with the loose four-nation confederation of Gedda, a polity where people are allowed to be unproductively flamboyant and egregiously non-conformist rather than serving their betters in approved ways. This must be stopped!
Cyril DePaul was a top field agent in his day. Since his most recent brush with death, he has flown a desk. This is more boring than field work but also a lot less likely to result in him bleeding out in some filthy alley. DePaul discovers he is quite keen on the non-dying thing. Being sent back out into the field as part of a surreptitious attempt to nobble the Ospies is unwelcome.
In fairly short order DePaul’s cover is blown. He is given a choice: become an Ospie double-agent or become a corpse. He choses to stay alive, his one condition being that he be allowed to flee Gedda once the Ospies take control. His position within the state security apparatus provides the Ospies with enormous, unsuspected power over events to come.
Ospie electoral victories come as a surprise to the general population. A mounting sense of alarm follows, since the Ospies are quite willing to ignore tradition and law, and the authorities who should be stopping them seem incapable of mounting an effective defence.
DePaul would just be another turncoat were it not for one thing. He is determined to save his lover, Aristide Makricosta. Not only is Aristide the MC at the Bumble Bee Cabaret, Amberlough’s paramount den of sin, but Aristide has a sideline as a very successful smuggler. The Opsies loath gay people and cannot tolerate criminals who don’t belong to the Party. Aristide is doomed once the Ospies take over. Unless DePaul can prevent it.
Cordelia Lehane, Bee dancer and drug runner for Aristide, is drawn into DePaul’s cunning plan. She’s a plausible beard. Who could doubt that DePaul fell for an attractive show girl? But this means that if DePaul’s plan fails, she will be destroyed along with Aristide and DePaul.
The cover shown is the original cover. The current cover looks like this.
It’s no great spoiler to point out that if a book reminds one of Cabaret, if it’s set in a nation not entirely unlike the Weimar Republic, if there’s a political party that looks like Nazis, and if this is the first book in a series that will be about fighting Fascism, you should not expect the fascists to be defeated in book one.
Of course, in the real world, I would imagine a ludicrous party like the Ospies would be laughed away at the polls, their transparent appeals to prejudice and superstition rejected, and their violent outbursts quelled by the police. By permitting her goons early victories, Donnelly gives herself room for a full trilogy. What wild imaginations speculative fiction authors have, eh?
DePaul is a character one might expect to see stood up against a wall and shot after the eventual post-war crimes-against-humanity trials. He’s not a principled spy who risks death for nation or belief; indeed, he doesn’t seem to have anything like a moral compass. At least the other characters are more appealing. Sure, they’re petty criminals for the most part, but at least they’re not handing their country over to murderous fascists.
Paul’s lover Aristide is … not all bad. But the character who shines is Cordelia. When readers first meet her, she’s just an expendable pawn in DePaul’s scheme. By the end of the book she has her own agenda, one that’s way more idealistic than mere personal survival.
DePaul I actively dislike and Aristide I can take or leave, but Cordelia will get me to read the rest of the series.