Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly

When I originally saw the cover of Amberlough, I had no idea what to expect. It certainly drew my attention, with its warm, gorgeous colors and 50’s songbird vibe. Even now, I still can’t pinpoint what I like best about it: is it the knowing, sultry look on Cordelia Lehane’s face, or Aristide Makricosta’s impenetrable, fire-eyed gaze? Or, better yet, is it the dark allure that the cover of Amberlough seems to promise?

Even among the critics, there isn’t a clear consensus. The story can’t entirely be classified as either science fiction or fantasy, and while there are numerous secrets and cat-and-mouse games, it doesn’t qualify as a mystery, either. While it might be best to characterize the story as a stylish spy thriller, that still doesn’t fully capture the essence of Amberlough. This is one of many reasons why I think the story is great; it’s different, and it doesn’t remind me of anything else.

That’s not to say that it isn’t relatable, or that it doesn’t deftly weave well-known themes into the story. The novel, by Lara Elena Donnelly, explores the nature of patriotism, fascism, and bigotry. And yet, the story is also fun. Through the characters, we are able to revel in things like love, diversity, and fashion, along with quite an impressive night life (you’ll never look at absinthe the same way again). Donnelly produces characters that are realistic, compelling, and rightfully, deliciously flawed.

One great example is Cordelia Lehane, a streetwise dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret. Cordelia’s gutsy attitude is fueled by sheer grit and a basic need to survive. While she partakes in activities like drug dealing, she will also go to extreme lengths to protect people she barely tolerates. The same cannot be said of the infamous Cyril DePaul.

We are first given the story through the eyes of DePaul. He is, perhaps, the most flawed character of them all. Once a top-tier federal agent, Cyril is now a damaged man that must choose between his most precious ideals and the life of his criminal lover, Aristide Makricosta. If that wasn’t enough, Cyril must make this impossible choice in the midst of a government coup initiated by the Ospies, a tyrannical group of zealots who want to destroy the beloved city and its inhabitants. Control of the city of Amberlough is the ultimate prize, and the race to claim it is tense, thrilling, and devastating.

The ending resonates with the reader thanks to the novel’s truly exceptional characters. Despite everything, Cordelia and Aristide’s perseverance never truly falters, and in this way, they seem to embody the spirit of the city itself.

Underneath its gilded, striking veneer, Amberlough brims with weight and promise. Utilizing a style that doesn’t sacrifice sophistication for flair, Donnelly effectively captures the essence of being human. Step into the intriguing, fast-paced world of Amberlough—you won’t regret it.

Alyssa Jordan

Alyssa Jordan is a freelance writer in Southern California. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Chapman University in 2013. Currently, she is an Associate Editor at the 1888 Center and a Junior Editor for F(r)iction. Her work has appeared in publications like Every Day Fiction, Reflex Fiction, 100 Word Story, and the Bath Flash Fiction anthology (2017).