Friday 4 May 2018


(March 2018)

A spy and a love story in three acts, of which the middle one is excellent, the first is an excessively detailed infodump, and the third is a little too bleak for its own good. All this adds up to a good book that needs, but repays (but then reclaims), quite a bit of patience.

Amberlough City is the capital of the self-named region that surrounds it, one of the four semi-autonomous states of the federation of Gedda. It’s a playground for what, in our world at least, we might label Jazz Age hedonism, and we explore it through the eyes of Cordelia Lehane, a burlesque dancer, Aristide Makricosta, her part-time MC and a full-time smuggler, and Cyril DePaul, his lover and a spy. Over the course of the first act it’s revealed that the far-right Ospie party is rising to power in one of Amberlough’s sister-states, and Cyril is dispatched in order to subvert their planned theft of the election. It goes wrong in a way I’m still not entirely sure about. In fact I’m not entirely sure about a lot of things, exactly, but it all (eventually) clicks into place when you realize that the Ospies are the Nazis and Gedda is a simplified version of 1920s Europe. The middle section of the book takes us on a rollicking gallop through a city in the throes of occupation, and it closes in a frankly distressing manner as the noose tightens around our three leads and all that they love.

All well and good. The biggest unanswered question, however, is why this book is a secondary world fantasy at all. Even the fantasy is pushing it, as there’s absolutely nothing here in terms of technology, (lack of) magic, or social development that would be out of place in the real world between the Wars. Is it just that the names have been changed to protect the guilty? I suppose there’s an argument that having actual Nazis as the bad guys would have been a little too on-the-nose, would have clashed too strongly with, and distracted too much from, the whole demimonde tone Donnelly reaches for (and by and large obtains). But even so, things got noticeably less confusing (and thus more enjoyable) for me when I realised I could just map events onto the ends of Weimar Germany and the Roaring Twenties, so why not just cut out the middle man? The sequel will probably be out by the time you read this (or very soon after), and despite it all I enjoyed the first installment to come back for more.

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