Well, at least it’s getting better, however steadily.
Well, that’s possibly a little harsh. This one was an interesting one to rate, because for all that I think it’s rather well done… it’s also really quite emphatically not my thing. It’s just… I don’t care? It’s a spy thriller-ish… I don’t really like spy stories. It’s set in the sort of pre-War era (only in alternative universe). Meh? It’s all about show business and the glitz and the glam and the high stakes, late night, Bohemian-to-the-eyeballs lifestyle. Yaaaaawwwwwwwn. I can see what it’s aiming for, and I can see that it reaches that and more besides, but it just does not do it for me, and almost certainly was never going to. So it got a 3 on Goodreads, my go to rating for “meh, meh and double meh”. I never cared about reading it, I never wanted to get pulled back into the story, and at times I was amazed there was so damn much of it… but I could appreciate it, if I paused for a second and thought again.
To give you a brief overview, Amberlough is a city in the country of Gedda, which is divided into separately governed regions. We follow several Amberlinians through their lives during a time of political turmoil, all of whom are, in one way or another, ultimately connected to a club called The Bumble Bee – patron, emcee, stripper – and how they interact with each other and the changing political climate. It’s essentially Berlin in the twenties, and the Bohemian scene/spy networks, and the rise of definitely-not-fascism, especially poignant because they are all people the pseudo-fascists would not like (and not just because Bohemians). It’s not a subtle setting, for sure, and it relies heavily on a) the reader getting on board with this and b) thus the spy plotting stuff. And I’m not super keen on b).
I suppose my issue with the spy aspect, and particularly the spy aspect in this era, is the supposed glamour of the whole thing. Even more so than James Bond, it’s meant to be an era when spying meant knowing the right people, going to parties, saying a code word and occasionally pulling your hat down low over your eyes and putting your hand on your revolver. There’s a sense of style, of it being a game – and I know this is often made explicit, as it is in this novel – that I don’t like because it feels so fake. It’s glorifying something that I – ok, admittedly without much knowledge of the topic – suspect wasn’t all that glorious to begin with, and more importantly, very likely isn’t anywhere near that swanky now, and probably not to be… lauded as much as this makes it? And don’t get me wrong, Donnelly does try to make it so the whole spying thing isn’t all roses and absinthe and a jolly posh-boy game with no consequences… but she’s not totally successful, especially given how much of a jolly posh boy one of the protagonists is. It’s just… it’s alright if you like that sort of thing, but I really don’t. It’s one of the few areas where I think you actually do reap some benefits if you make it grim and gritty*.
But mainly, this is not a problem with this book. It’s doing a thing that a lot of people do and are lauded for, and it’s doing it relatively well (to my limited knowledge) – it’s just a thing I don’t like.
My other main issue is that I’m not honestly sure this is SFF. Is alt-history – pure alt-history, no bells or whistles or magic – SFF on its own? Or does it need wizards etc. spicing it up to make it SFF? My inclination is that it does, but… I guess this might be contentious. But because I knew it was classified as SFF, I kept wondering, as I read, whether something fantastical was ever going to happen. And it didn’t. And that was mildly disappointing. But again, not the book’s fault.
I should probably move on to talking about the actual book at this point, rather than how its pigeonholes are not the ones I want.
What it is very good at doing very quickly is evoking a very visual sense of place. I had no problems picturing Amberlough in my mind – though I will admit the whole thing was always sightly sepia. Some of this is just that Donnelly has a good way of setting that out, she writes prose you can visualise easily, and that has the nature of a real thing about it. But also because she’s chosen to root it in a real time and place, she can use shorthands to make you think of that, and you have ready-made mental templates to pull you in. She doesn’t have to do all the legwork herself, which… well, it’s effective, but it does have the downside of feeling a bit derivative. I think the trade-off works, given that she’s making a point about historical parallels, but it does mean I kept thinking of various characters/groups as their real-world equivalent. Which is the point, of course… but I’d like to be able to remember someone for their own merits as a character, not who they represent. At least to an extent.
The book is, of course, meant to be timely like this. There are obvious Nazi parallels being made, and the fear of the Bohemian set is… well, you can see what’s being done here. And it achieves that very well, no questions asked. But I think that feeling of place and time does come at the expense of e.g. the spy plot – the feeling of a coherent plot is always subordinate to that feeling of a time and place and setting, and a tone of grim.
The characters were, for me, what mainly let it down, though. I just didn’t connect to any of them. Some of them did feel real… but incredibly annoying and self-absorbed. The rest were fairly flat. The main three… Cordelia is fairly ok. She’s competent, self-possessed and fairly sensible, but we don’t really get all that much of her personality. The other two – Cecil and Aristide – are just desperately self-involved and melodramatic. And I had so little patience for it after a while that I stopped caring about anything that happened to them. The relationships in the book thus felt a bit… empty… because I couldn’t see what sustained them – I couldn’t see why anyone would like each other.
Ultimately, it was an unsatisfying book, both because it wasn’t my sort of thing and because it wasn’t an amazing example of what it was. It did its setting very well, but failed to follow through in plot and characters, which would just have been necessary. The writing was decent, but no more than that.
Despite this, and because of shockingly bad competition, this somehow does actually make it into the top of my current Nebula reads. It’s not great, I don’t love it and I won’t be seeking the author out again, but at least it was vaguely competently done, and didn’t make me angry by being aggressively awful. The list currently runs thus:
1. Amberlough – Lara Elena Donnelly (a crowning triumph of mediocrity over… more mediocrity and shitness)
2. Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory (in the land of the shite, this mediocre man is no longer king)
3. Autonomous – Annalee Newitz (I am still sad I have read something so shit that this isn’t in bottom place)
4. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – Theodora Goss (ok, that being said maybe Autonomous was actually worse, on reflection… I might swap them)
Ok, so it IS grim and gritty, but only at the very end. And it’s quite a big step-change from most of the book. It is with very good reason, and fits into the pattern of the book as well as Cyril’s general character growth (and the seeds sown early on about his misgivings and previous misadventures), but as a whole flavour of the book goes… it’s a lot of a shift. I think she pulls it off pretty well, but I also think the veneer of glamour needed to be peeled back a lot earlier for it to have the proper effect, at least for me. But then again, as I said, I don’t like glamourised spies. Take it as you will.