I have been waiting to read this book ever since I saw the cover of the hardback and learned it was a book about queer spies. Then the paperback came out and it was a bit pricey (for a paperback) and had a different (inferior, IMHO) cover, all that’s in the past though, because I’ve since bought and read it.
Amberlough is the story of three people: Cyril DePaul, a spy, Aristide Makricosta, an emcee at Amberlough City’s most popular cabaret, smuggler, and Cyril’s lover, and Cordelia Lehane, a dancer and drug runner at the same club. Amberlough City is the illustrious, decadent, and thoroughly corrupt center of Amberlough, one municipality of four that makes up the nation of Gedda, and it is under siege by the One State Party–nicknamed the Ospies–who seek to unite the four governments into one, socially conservative nation. When Cyril is made during a mission to infiltrate the Ospies’ ranks, he makes a deal to turn turncoat in exchange for his and Aristide’s lives, enter Cordelia, who could hold the key to Cyril’s plans, if she can be trusted, and if they all aren’t swept away by the rising tide of a fascist revolution.
This is a book about assholes. This is a book about assholes fighting nazis in all but name. This is a book about assholes who actually aren’t all that bad considering they are fighting nazis in all but name. I mean, almost everyone can be seen in a better light when compared to nazi scum.
Even so, it took me so long to warm up to these characters. Actually, it took me so long to warm up to Cyril in particular. Aristide? A true bicon (as we say on tumblr). Cordelia? Amazing, love her. Cyril? Cyril is a (self-admitted) coward who throws in with fascists in exchange for letting him and Aristide flee the country, because it’s not like his boyfriend is a smuggler who could probably get them out with a snap of his fingers.
Oh wait, it says right there in the back cover text.
So basically I spent most of this book saying stuff like “oh my gods Cyril why what are you doing stop” I did eventually warm up to him, but I still found Aristide and Cordelia more compelling and likeable as characters, even though, as I said, everyone’s a bit of an asshole in this book. In fact, this is another one of those books I’d recommend reading if you want an example of how to make assholes sympathetic characters while still being assholes.
As I said, next to actual nazis, pretty much everyone comes across in a better light by comparison.
There’s a real sense of place in this novel. I love the way Cordelia peppers her speech with slang and crude euphemisms from her lower class neighbourhood in particular. No one seems to care if Aristide decides to go to a restaurant wearing a dress and makeup. Gendered clothing? Pfft! Not in this city! Speaking of gender, a side plot involve a polyamorous triad trying to make their way out of the city in the wake of a major victory for the fascists (polyamory and same-sex marriage is approved of by one of the major religions in Amberlough).
One criticism I have is that a lot of info is dumped on you at the start regarding politics and factions and I found myself re-reading passages a few times to make sense of everything. Alas, politics is not my forte.
Another issue I had was with Aristide’s stutter, not the fact that he has a stutter, but the fact that it is an affected stutter–not actually a disability–which he uses in order to disguise his upbringing. Aristide does have constant back pain, however, and Cyril has obviously been negatively affected by his past failures as a spy. So while I was disappointed by the stutter, I did like that the characters were disabled in other ways.
Overall, I loved Amberlough. It’s easily been one of my favourite reads this year, and the sequel’s currently sitting on my desk waiting for me to pick it up. Did I mention the next book involves movies and matriarchies? It’s going to be awesome.