Jackie at Death by Tsundoku and I have been buddy reading The Amberlough Dossier, a speculative trilogy by Lara Elena Donnelly that has been described as “James Bond as written by Oscar Wilde”. The first book, Amberlough, takes place in the city of Amberlough, a freewheeling city of cutthroat politics and libertine values, where a fascist faction manipulates events in order to take over the country.
In the trilogy’s second book, Armistice, the story jumps three years into the future, where protagonists from the first book have been fighting the fascists– in one way or another– for those three years.
Jackie and I have enjoyed the first two books, and we had plenty to talk about during our buddy read.
Jackie: Three years have passed since the fall of Amberlough City to the Opsies. Like last time, I want to start by addressing the epigraph. Yet again, Donnelly quotes John le Carré, only I don’t know The Night Manager. And she pairs this with a quote from Casablanca. Reading into these quotes, I predict Cordelia and Aristide will find each other again and become a force against the Opsies to reclaim the city they love. Though, I believe Ari will be a hesitant revolutionary and Cordelia will drag him along kicking and screaming most of the way.
Kim: I’d forgotten to look at the epigraphs. Oops! Looking back on them, though, I think it may have more to do with Lillian than Aristide or Cordelia, but I think you’re totally right about Cordelia and Ari getting back together and being a force to be reckoned with. Eventually.
Jackie: Hindsight is 20/20 and I agree now about the epigraph having to do with Lillian. When I first cracked open the book, I didn’t know her character existed (and I am so in love with her). I also didn’t expect to see so much change in Aristide and Cordelia. The epigraph choice is brilliant because it gives the reader a chance to attempt foreshadowing. Only Donnelly twists it on us and makes it about something entirely different than what a post-Amberlough reader might consider. For example, the Casablanca quote could be about ANY of the character relationships: Pulan and Memmediv, Pulan and Cordelia, Cordelia and Memmediv, Lillian and Memmediv, Lilliam and Jinadh… I could go on, but you get it.
While three years have passed, I’m shocked at some of the choices Aristide and Cordelia have both been making up to this point. Donnelly does a great job helping us understand how exhausted they are from fighting and running, but I’m shocked at the danger they are willing to put themselves in. It’s obvious that both of them have aged significantly in those three years on the run. They have changed a lot since Amberlough City. I spent a good chunk of my reading worrying about them, though, so as a tool for tension building it is working. I almost pity them early in the book even despite Ari’s shocking success!!
Kim: I was surprised, too, that Donnelly skipped three years. But it feels natural, and it feels like they’ve all been living and doing things since then. It’s not just a “three years later, and everything really feels the same” sort of thing. I’ve run into that before, and it’s annoying. But I really feel like Cordelia has been out fighting the Opsies, and it feels like Aristide has sort of settled into his routine and has grown weary of life.
I was surprised, too, at the alliances they’ve built, both over the three years we skipped and throughout the book. The epigraph led me to expect unexpected alliances, but some of these were completely unexpected– like the whole deal with Memmediv, and where Ari and Daoud ended up by the ending– but again, it all feels perfectly realistic to the world and how it’s changed. Donnelly really has a handle on the ways her world has changed, and on the complexities of the different cultures. There aren’t really any infodumps, but you understand how things fit together because you’re getting the information from the characters’ lived experience. I wish more authors did that, instead of sitting the reader down and being like “Okay, let me spend the next five pages explaining the intricacies of my world”. Doing that makes the world feel constructed instead of it coming about naturally.
Jackie: It was so much fun being exposed to a new culture. Learning all about Porachi was a fun adventure. My mind originally thought this was a Moroccan-like country (I blame the Casablanca reference in the epigraph for putting that in my head), but it slowly became a place of its own by the end of the story. I appreciate the little details such as when people spoke in Geddan we used quotation marks but Porachese was in double chevrons. This made it easy to identify what language people were speaking in, even when they switched back and forth in a single conversation. And all those moments when someone couldn’t recall a word in the other language or didn’t understand an idiom — these made the experiences of the characters feel so real!
By having an alternative setting from Amberlough City, we get eased into international politics. While I found the political machinations just as complex as the previous book, something about them was easier to follow in Armistice. Perhaps I learned how to interpret the political aspects of Donnelly’s writing? Or, perhaps it’s easier at a distance.
I will admit, I was frustrated that we still only had a map of Gedda in the front of the book. I wanted to understand where Porachi was in relation to Gedda. I think it was northeast?
Kim: I imagined Porachis as Morocco, too. The Casablanca quote helped steer the way. But yeah, it definitely became its own thing as the story went on. And I feel for the characters who couldn’t recall the words or phrases in another language! I haven’t studied German for a while now, but when I was working with my tutor, we’d have a halting conversation, and I would have to make up things– “food store” instead of ‘supermarket’– because I either didn’t know or couldn’t remember the right word. It made for some humorous conversations!
Politics have gotten easier. It’s because we’ve had the initial immersion from Amberlough. It got us used to the society, so with that behind us, we’re better able to understand the complexities of Armistice. And I will admit that the whole thing with Memmediv surprised me! Given what he’d done in the previous book, I was not expecting him to do all this in this novel. I guess even he has his limits.
A map would be so helpful! I kept imagining Porachis as being south of Gedda, but I seem to remember that it was referred to as being north of Gedda? Am I misremembering? All I really know is that it’s hot there.
Jackie: Though the book mentioned a Tzietan armistice a few times, I assumed the title had more to do with our characters than the politics. What sort of spy thriller do we have if none of the spies flip sides every now and then? The complexities of Memmediv’s loyalties to a physical place over people makes him tricky for everyone to manage. This, plus the very real side-effects of the concussion Ari gave him, made Memmediv a much more interesting character to me. He was no longer just the guy who ruined Cyril’s life. Now he’s a fully developed human who has hopes and fears like everyone else. Donnelly took away the one man we could point to as the bad guy and made this, brilliantly, not about people but about countries and politics. Masterful.
Though, an armistice is almost always temporary… And this means I still don’t trust Memmediv. He’ll be back in Amnesty. The real questions for the next book become: Who will receive formal forgiveness? And who will be dead?
Kim: Yeah, I don’t trust Memmediv, either. Sure, he says he’s fighting for his country, but is he really? And what would it take for him to flip again? Is he going along with our heroes so he can find Cyril for nefarious reasons?
I like that you asked about formal forgiveness. Assuming they find Cyril (and based on the synopsis on the back of Amnesty, they will), he might receive a formal pardon for what he’s done (might), but can the actual people forgive him? He had his reasons, but given the consequences of his actions, those reasons are weak in the grand scheme of things. A lot of people suffered terribly because Cyril wanted to protect Aristide, and then it turned out that Aristide didn’t need his protection after all.
Jackie: Something to consider when it comes to Cyril is what he has done in the 3+ years since we saw him last. Will the efforts he put in fighting and hiding outweigh what he did to Amberlough City? How much of the blame will get put on someone else’s shoulders? I wonder when national heroes are put up for us to admire how often we are only told the part of the story that is glamorous and daring — and how often some more sordid details are omitted… I wouldn’t be surprised if, in Amnesty, we see Cyril put on a pedestal for helping return things to normal in Amberlough (wishful thinking!) because his family is well known, and has brought glory to Gedda in the past — and Memmediv is, well, none of those things.
What do you think about Donnelly using films and media the way she did in Armistice? I spent a lot of time pondering the juxtaposition of the Press against entertainment media and where the truth falls — in our fiction or news.
Kim: I was mostly thinking of how the parts in Porachis reminded me of Casablanca, honestly… And of how films are so often used as propaganda, even when they’re not specifically marked as such. I wonder how much of the film industry in Porachis was given over to subtle propaganda, and how much of it was pure entertainment.
I don’t think Cyril is going to get off very easily. Especially given that his and Lillian’s grandmother was a hero of Gedda. When you have a national hero in your family, the rest of the country expects you to exhibit the same sort of heroism, and when you don’t, they’ll hate you for it. If Cyril’s been working for the resistance and makes a good showing of himself in Amnesty, then I’m all for a redemption arc for him, but it’s going to take a lot of good works. I’m still not happy with him for what he did in the first book.
Jackie: Good point. I imagine there will be a redemption arc, regardless of whether Cyril, Lillian, and Aristide believe Cyril deserve to be redeemed. War is messy. Heck, life is messy. And Donnelly has shown an aptitude for sneaky politics that implies to me the politics will get much more complex before (if?) Gedda is freed from fascism…