Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

As far as fantasy novels go, this has a great setting and characters (with one exception that I’ll get to in a minute) and above all atmosphere. Essentially an alternate world take on Weimar Berlin before the fascists’ rise to power, it depicts life lived on a razor’s age, hedonism in the maw of societal destruction. As a fantastical version of Cabaret, as a paean to love beyond the typical heterosexual pairing, it’s a terrific novel.

But Jesus Christ, as a spy novel, it is godawful. I spent the last two-thirds of the novel utterly mystified by Cyril because nothing he did made a goddamn lick of sense. So basically a few years before the events of Amberlough begin, he got pulled out of the field after nearly losing his life in a Russia-like neighbor. He gets taken off of desk work, however, to try to infiltrate the fascists in the fictional stand-in for The Netherlands. It’s not really a spoiler to say that his cover is blown, but then instead of going home and licking his wounds like any other competent spy would, he turns. For no good reason, and he hates himself the entire time, and he makes a lot of shitty and incompetent choices. Not even a previous near-death experience could make such an inconsistent bungler out of the master spy we’re told he is. This is the worst spy novel I’ve ever read, and an insult to John LeCarre to have this book compared with his work.

That said, it’s a pretty good sociopolitical novel, and Ari and Cordelia are both fantastic characters. It’s a wildly original setting for a fantasy novel and I do want to know more about the people and the world. But God, not as a spy novel please.

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