Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

A loose federation of states, Gedda, is descending into fascism. Cyril DePaul, an intelligence agent, Aristide Makricosta, a smuggler, and Cordelia Lehane, a cabaret singer, compromise and sacrifice to save the ones they love. Their choices don’t always work out well.

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly is a badly needed shot of dieselpunk into the spec fiction literature. Her gorgeously-described world plays to dieselpunk’s strengths: politics and nation-building. Since Donnelly’s nation is made up, she can fiddle with all the levers. Gedda’s disastrous Spice War looks like a mashup of America’s wars in Vietnam, Korea, and Afghanistan. Their central religious figure reminds me of a Queen Solomon. The people practice polygamy, but it’s looked down on as too old-fashioned.

Most fascinating is that Geddan society doesn’t have a notion of race. They’ve got ethnicity. The people of the four member states, Amberlinians, Tatiens, Farbourgese, and Nuesklenders, see themselves as separate peoples, plus there are Lisoan immigrants and a Chuli minority group. But tell a light-skinned Amberlinian he has something in common with a light-skinned Tatien and you’d get a blank look. This is a great thought experiment of what light-skinned people might be like without whiteness.

The language is very, very polished, to the point of being slick. While Donnelly loves her Amberlough City and writes beautiful description about it, sometimes it gets a bit much. At one point Cyril stirs a lump of muscovado into his coffee. Not any old sugar, muscovado. Some of the details feel gratuitous, and some scenes I skimmed for the dialogue.

The plot requires the characters to make stupid decisions. Cyril’s boss puts him, a blown agent, back into the field. What if somebody recognizes him? When, lo, Cyril needs to flee the country, he can’t think of a better way to do this than strike a bargain with the One State Party. (I’m glad that Cordelia calls him out on this.) Cordelia, who should know better, wears stolen jewelry to the park.

The One State Party isn’t scary. For one thing, we don’t get to see much of its political platform. When the One State Party arrives in Amberlough City, it gets a 0% approval rating. Other people in Gedda are responsible for fascism, bad people. That’s a comforting way to think about fascism and a missed opportunity. The terror of fascism lies in the reasons normal people want it. A good hard look like Maus should make the reader want to secede from the human race.

Amberlough sags in the middle, struggling to set Aristide up for the next book and balance Cyril’s undoing with Cordelia’s making. However. The beginning is good and the ending is magnificent.

Here’s my favorite bit:

When she woke up it was dark and the storm was going full-tilt outside the kitchen window, pelting the glass with wind-driven rain. Lightning seared the room flashbulb-white, making the whole gory scene like something out of a moving picture.

Cordelia straightened, stiffly, and cased herself. Her body hurt worse than ever, but sleep had done her head and heart some good.

While she’d dozed and dreamed about revenge, something in her broken chest had changed. Not her ribs, not a muscle or an organ, but something deeper and more vital. It had turned hard and crooked, like a fracture healed up wrong.

The One State Party has created a monster.

Amberlough is a good book, and if Donnelly had gone for more depth, it could have been a classic. There are two more books coming, so there’s plenty of room for that depth yet. I’m eagerly awaiting them.

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