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Amberlough
by Lara Elena Donnelly
TOR Books; 395pp; $25.99
Published: February 2017

Verrry interesting story by debut author Donnelly.

It starts off in a deluge of glittering details. A bedroom with two lovers. Minute descriptions of clothing and food. A wonderful  lifestyle very much in the manner of Thirties movies.

Throughout the book we are flooded with decadent velvets, satins, the clink of seed pearls and beads, tassels, pencil-thin eyebrows and deep red lipstick, slinky gowns and natty evening suits. And over all, a thin veil of cigarette smoke.

What we have is an alternate world. A state named Amberlough is surrounded by other little states in the country of Gedda. There is political unrest. Elections are coming up, despicable, smarmy politicians lying and buying their way into position…and over all, the specter of a new organization called the One State Party (whose members are called Ospies). Who will stop at nothing to take over and become known as Blackboots for obvious reasons. Kind of sound familiar?

Against this background we have the delightful, neon–lit Bumble Bee Cabaret. So very flash, full of chorus girls and strip tease and torch singers. Lots of makeup and gilding, feathers and slink.

Very, very similar in atmosphere to the film “Cabaret.”

We have Aristide and Cyril—Aristide the elegant “monarch of the demimonde” and the Bee’s outrageous, glitzy, powdered-wig wearing star attraction and Cyril the more straight-laced, nine-to-five sort and his love. His job is working for the Federal Office of Central Intelligence commonly known as the Foxhole. We also have sweet Finn who works in Cyril’s office as an accountant who is seduced by Aristide. There’s also Cordelia, a no-nonsense torch singer and Malcom, her boss.

All of these characters have layers and all are working undercover—legally and illegally.

So there are lots of parties, partner switching, clandestine meetings down at riverside dives to exchange info…all as things are getting politically hotter---and much more conservative. So conservative, a flashy decadent business like the Bumble Bee will be seen as abhorrent to the new regime.

Luxuriance is the key here. Donnelly revels in describing the clothing the furniture, the weather, flowers and building details. Layers and layers of description.  Almost too much. I got lost in the visuals and lost sight of the plot sometimes.

Everything is changing; Aristide and Cyril’s relationship becomes untenable. Cordelia, who had been doing some smuggling on the side to help ends meet, finds she has to get way more involved with the underbelly of things than she wanted. Finn finds himself Aristide’s new love much to his surprise.

Elections occur, politicians are murdered and the One State Party rises to vicious prominence. Rioting breaks out. Businesses are destroyed—including the Bumble Bee Cabaret.

And to survive this dark upheaval; everyone’s lives need to change: personas, life styles and locations.

The book really revs up in the last hundred pages or so as Aristide must delve deep into his contacts and his past to save himself and Cyril with a great deal of misdirection. Sweet Finn finds himself used as a messenger and is not happy about it. The One State Party makes their presence immediately felt by implementing new rules which they enforce with billy clubs, bombings and immigration changes. Those who are not fit to be good Ospies suddenly find themselves unable to leave Amberlough and are likely to be beaten and tortured.
The ending, though well-constructed, presents a bit like an empty stage: all the furniture and props are cleared off and the actors have left. Will they return? And if so; what will they do if they can?

It’s not a bad conclusion—but for me, a little vague and uncertain.  ~~ Sue Martin

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