The Amberlough Dossier
By Lara Elena Donnelly
Genre: Speculative Fiction
QUILTBAG Main Character: Yes
QUILTBAG Minor Character: Yes
POC Main Character: One of the main characters is a POC
Bechdel Test: Yes
Summary: The City of Amberlough is changing and for a smuggler, a spy, and a showgirl, the world will never be the same. Spanning many years, The Amberlough Dossier follows these intricate and complex characters as they navigate an oppressive new government, threats of torture and death, and heartbreak. With themes of political unrest, classism, and resistance, this is a fantasy spy series you never knew you needed.
Let’s Get A Little Deep:
This is going to be a somewhat vague review. I decided to talk about all three books in the trilogy at once in part because the whole series is out now and you can go pick them up today if you wanted to (and you should get these books right away, just so you know). However, the reason this review will be vague is because each book contains spoilers for what happened in the one before, and I do try to keep these reviews spoiler-free.
Political intrigue is hard to write correctly. Too often we get overly the stoic male spy, his sexy female love interest who will likely die for his own character growth later. The Amberlough Dossier gives us capable women with agency and brains, a spy whose heart is far too big for the line of work he is in, and a smuggler who can see through everyone and everything except himself. It is such a delightful and queer spin on what is expected that it leaves the readers desperate to see what comes next.
Donnelly provides a vivid and human backdrop that feels like pre-WW2 Germany with themes that have stayed sadly all too familiar in our present-day politics. This haunting setting of an increasingly hostile government to anyone who is “other” shines a vivid light on characters who certainly don’t fit the mold.
Aristide, a smuggler who doubles as a crossdressing MC at a burlesque show, is not who he appears; he may not even know who he is anymore. The world shifts under him, and he is always sure that he can shift with it, that he can roll with whatever punches it throws.
But his heart belongs to Cyril, a government spy who wants to protect Aristide but is also worried about himself first and foremost. His heart and fear war with each other over what to do when the government is shifting in a way that will leave Aristide and Cyril both vulnerable.
Cordelia, a showgirl with ambition and grit, doesn’t think any of this will affect her. She soon learns she is wrong, leading her away from the lights of the stage and into the heart of a resistance movement.
The series focuses on these three beautifully flawed characters, showing how they change over the course of the novels. As the fascist government closes in around them, they make choices for their own survival and the survival of their way of life. Many of these choices lead to harm for themselves or others. Donnelly puts the flaws of these characters center stage, making sure the reader knows that these heroes are complex and flawed but no less heroes for it. Cordelia’s story in particular is one of someone trying to do right but not always for selfless reasons.
The Amberlough Dossier, ultimately, asks the reader what they are willing to give up to stop an unjust fascist government and, also, what they’re willing to leave behind for love. It pushes the reader to think about the actions we take when our backs are against the wall. Donnelly tells a compelling and moving story that will keep you reading and make a revolutionary out of you.
Thanks for going a little deep with me! I post reviews every other Thursday. Did you love The Amberlough Dossier? Leave a comment telling me your favorite book in the series. You can also find me on Twitter @gwasserst! Special thanks to Yasi (@yasaminnb) for editing my posts.