Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly: A Discussion


Amberlough (The Amberlough Dossier #1)
by Lara Elena Donnelly
398 pages
Amberlough is a free-wheeling city of nightclubs, fashion, and political intrigue. But while its liberal society has experienced its freedom for longer than anyone can remember, a fascist faction is at work beneath the surface, seeking to take power and install their ultra-conservative ideals in the government. They have their pieces in place. It’s just a matter of lighting the spark that will change Amberlough forever.


I read Amberlough as part of a buddy read with Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku. We both loved the book and had a long conversation about it and our reactions to it (you can find her post here.)

Jackie: I just reached chapter 6. I love the characters. I appreciate the slow, detail-driven way we are getting to know them, too. Waking up with Cyril in Aristide’s flat. Walking with Cordelia and Tory into work. These are little details and yet so telling of who these people are and what is to come. I keep wanting to race forward in the text and get to know them better.

Alas, I’m finding the political machinations difficult to follow. I appreciate how Donnelly isn’t overly explaining things to us; she obviously respects the reader’s intelligence. But it’s a lot of names and locations that are unfamiliar to me so I keep having to slow down my pace and re-read passages to keep up. Despite my careful attempts, I think I’ve still missed, or am unable to easily connect, critical details like who is in power in each country and who they are aligned with.

Kim: Politically, I see a lot of parallels between Amberlough and Europe in the 1930s, where you had a lot of decadence in cities like Paris and London, where so many people were trying to make sense of WWI and move on from it, and then you had the rising tide of Fascism and anti-Semitism in Germany and Italy.

In the musical Cabaret, which takes place in 1930s Berlin, a young German soldier sings a song about the fatherland and how ‘..tomorrow belongs to me…’ which the characters (like Sally Bowles) sort of laugh off. But the viewer is meant to find the song chilling, as the German soldier is a Nazi, and we know what comes next in history. But Sally and the other performers of the cabaret are utterly unaware of what’s on the horizon.

I really appreciate all the details Donnelly put into the story, too, and she doesn’t smack you upside the head with them or over-describe things. It’s just the people going through their days and noticing the things you would notice when going through your own day.

Jackie: The misguided focus and uncertainty of 1930s Europe come through clearly in Donnelly’s setting. Based on the technology, clothing, entertainment, and food consumed by the characters, I placed them in a similar world. But I didn’t quite make it so far as being truly on the cusp of something transformative in the wider arenas of global politics and history. Good catch! It’s been years since I’ve seen Cabaret, but that moment with the young Nazi party member is very clear now that you reminded me. I just reached the end of Part One and I wonder on which side of the change our protagonists will fall? Perhaps on different sides… I’m already fearing for Cyril and Aristide.

Kim: Okay. Just finished. First thoughts? Cordelia is a badass. Cyril is an ass, and Aristide doesn’t deserve him.

More coherent thoughts: I love Donnelly’s grasp of politics in her world, and just how quickly the dominos can fall in a coup when you have people in just the right (or wrong) spot, and then you get one person to flip and set everything in motion. That’s how WWI started…

Jackie: I completely agree with you about Cyril being an ass. I want to have more sympathy for him, but his fall started before I fully believed in him. If we had been shown more of his former badassery, I would have found his fall shocking. Instead, I find that I only care whether he survives because Aristide is my favorite character. While Aristide deserves better, I want him to be happy, and I worry he’ll spend the whole war hung up on Cyril. That would make book two awfully… dull.

Cordelia is a character I’m split on. I love her. She’s sassy, powerful, unafraid, determined. I know she’s going to make bad choices in the future. I just know it. She got in over her head too quickly. But she’s a survivor. She’ll make it no matter what.

Donnelly has a strong grasp of politics. Unfortunately, mine is less strong. I need to reread this book at some point so I can better understand how all the pieces fit together. It’s like we blinked and fascism was in charge! But, you’re right, that is how WWI started… and I am just as confused as they are.

Kim: I’m thinking back to wild political changes that I know of, and some major ones seemed to begin all of a sudden– WWI, obviously, but also the Bolshevik Revolution, the French Revolution. There were all these issues simmering beneath the surface, and then you needed a spark or two to ignite the whole thing. The same thing is happening in Amberlough, where you have the Ospies being jerks overall, and then a few people in key positions were able to manipulate a few people and events, and then *bang!* and you have a coup. I think if we were to go back and re-read it now, knowing what’s going to happen, we’d see what’s going on in the background more clearly. And now that we know who the mole was, we’d have a better idea of how they were manipulating things.

I’m split over Cordelia, too. She’s a strong character when pushed, but it’s like she has to be pushed to the edge to show any sort of loyalty to the people she’s known for so long. If it’s loyalty at all? Now that I’m sitting here thinking about it, I’m not even sure she has loyalty– it’s more like she has a belated realization of who she actually cared about it, having never thought about it until it was too late.

Jackie: Considering our current political climate in America, Amberlough has given me a lot to think about. How does one see the revolution coming? And how can we avoid being complicit in letting it happen? I’ve been so overwhelmed by the news and social media lately it’s shut me down a bit. Is that spark or two that ignited Amberlough City, WWI, or the French Revolution close by? Hindsight is 20-20. I know I’ll be re-reading Amberlough someday, that’s for sure.

Considering this is fantasy — how do you feel our modern sensibilities are tied into this strangely historical perspective of Donnelly’s universe? I found myself pondering how much of this lifestyle is something you’d expect in the early 1900s and how much is our modern life projected into a world experiencing similar issues we did globally in the 1930s.

Kim: I wonder if our revolutionary spark was the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests? Revolutions aren’t always for the worst like it was in Amberlough. The protests are about problems and anger that’s been simmering for a long time, and it just needed one last step to boil over. The country as a whole has been blithely ignoring racism for so long, but with the way the current president keeps stoking racial divisions and being a racist himself, I think June served as a wake-up call for many Americans, and the support has spiked so much. Is it a revolution that will last? I hope so.

One of the things I enjoy about the latest wave of SFF and speculative fiction is that they include far more diverse characters. I mean, if your book has elves or dragons or is set in another world entirely, why should gay or polyamorous characters be unusual? With Amberlough being an analog to 1930s Europe, and with LGBTQIA+ people having existed in 1930s Europe, I wonder if Donnelly wanted to write a WWII story, but have the kind of storyline that she wanted to deal with, rather than having to stick with historical fact. There’s so much WWII historical fiction already, and a lot of it (as far as I know. I don’t really read it) goes a certain way, or the synopses say. But it’s not like you can diverge from the main line of history and not confront something like the Holocaust.

Jackie: You’re right. Not all revolution is bad, and I didn’t mean to imply such a thing in my previous comment. The riots happening now in America have a very clear focus, though. I can easily see what each side is representing (at a high level) and can select where I stand. In Amberlough, there was more of a slow build. It wasn’t a revolution until it was too late to take action. Sure, people saw the signs, but did they do anything? No. Because they didn’t think it could manifest. At this point, our protesting is transparent. And I love that. I know why people are in the streets and I can clearly articulate my position on the key issues at hand. Plus, if (god forbid) this does become a civil war, I can clearly identify the moment where the fire started. Sure, the embers have been burning for a long time, but I know what caused it to spread violently.

That said, historians will probably prove me wrong and the current American revolution will become like WWI where the trigger on paper was Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination… but isn’t really where it all started.

World War II fiction is something I am tired of, honestly. Whether it’s between the wars, during WWII, or in the aftermath — I feel like all the stories focus around the same themes. They are compelling stories (All the Light We Cannot See, for example, is one of my all-time favorite novels) but I need to take them in small doses. Set in a fictional world with fictional politics and fabulous food I barely noticed the usual WWII tropes that I typically find exhausting. Donnelly does a masterful job capturing the key themes and feelings of pre-war Europe without getting it in my face. Perhaps she did start this as WWII fiction. Or, I prefer to hope, she wondered what could have happened. That’s what speculative fiction is, after all, further exploration into a timeline that never occurred to our experiences. Perhaps, if LGBTQIA+ people and people of color had been more respected in Europe at the time, stories like this would have been saved in time. Perhaps a story like this did happen during the war — only we’ll never know.


8 thoughts on “Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly: A Discussion

  1. This was so much fun to read with you! Thank you for recommending The Amberlough Dossier — A much improved book over A Ruin of Kings

    I was wondering recently… How does one classify a book such as Amberlough? I see it classified as fantasy. It’s published by Tor, it’s set in a made-up universe. But when I think of fantasy, I think of elements we cannot find in our world. Perhaps this is more of an Alternative Universe book? How would you categorize the genre?

  2. It was definitely better than Ruin of Kings. I really hope Donnelly writes more books!

    I don’t know how to classify it. I see it in Fantasy, too, since it’s a made up world, but there isn’t any magic. Speculative, maybe?

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