Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

book cover of Amberlough

I found Amberlough hard to get into at first; there are a ton of names – of people, places and political groups – and while I picked them up before too long, it took a lot of furrowed concentration at the start. The good news is that so long as you’re willing to do that, you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic spec fic thriller, set in an analogue for Weimar-era Germany as it succumbs to Nazi rule.

The main characters are split between spies and burlesque theatre folk, most of them gay, and the rest dead broke (my god how refreshing it is to read a book where not everyone is rich!!). The characters are all far from perfect people, but especially Cyril, whose flaws are so glaring and decision-making skills so horrible that his chapters made me squirm to read at times. And also let’s be real, there was no reason he had to murder Finn. That was cruel. That said, despite their flaws I found them all compelling to read about, the way their stories crossed paths and had them sometimes allied and sometimes working against each other. That was neat.

There is a palpable sense of dread over the course of the book that gets sharper and heavier the closer you get to the end. The real theme of it is the way that the impending seizure of power by the Ospies (Nazi equivalents) forces people into some nasty dilemmas where every option sucks, but it still matters what option they choose anyway. I’m looking forward to seeing how that develops over the rest of the trilogy.

As an aside, I also appreciated the depiction of Amberlough itself – the many districts, from genteel to bawdy and everything in between; the public transport routes; the sights and smells of the city parks; the sounds of the different accents of its residents… it was just clearly a book from someone who loves urban life and can put into words all the things that make cities great. It made for an immersive environment as all the politics and scheming were underway. If this book sounds like anything you might be interested in I encourage you to give it a try, because it really gripped me.

Books in the Amberlough Dossier series

  1. Amberlough (you are here)
  2. Armistice
  3. Amnesty


a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a socialist and a feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.