Encapsulate the book in one sentence? I'd say it's the queer decopunk spy thriller you never knew you needed, but if you never knew you needed a queer decopunk spy thriller I'm not sure I trust you.
Intriguing, tell me more. Amberlough, a decadent city (think 1920s Berlin) threatened from without by the political rise of the One State Party, known as the Ospies. Embroiled in this powderkeg of change, Cyril DePaul, spymaster, and his lover Aristide Matricosta, cabaret star, smuggler, who dance between mutually conflicting interests and a complex but enduring connection.
Why this, why now? Amberlough has had a lot of hype for the last year, but it's actually taken a while for the book to reach the UK, and generally I try and avoid whatever book is in the current eye of the hype storm because it can almost never live up to it, and I really, really didn't want this book to be a disappointment.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you? Which it's not. Not in anyway. I absolutely loved the hell of out this book.
I really didn't know quite what to expect, despite the comparisons that I'd seen. There have been lines drawn to le Carre, which arise from the political intrigue, but the spycraft here isn't quite as involved; Cabaret and Isherwood have been thrown into the mix as well, and I can see where those came from, but Isherwood is a much more introverted writer. Amberlough sits somewhere between the two. It's powered by a tight espionage plot, a dramatic swirl of shifting allegiances, secrets kept and not kept, people playing games with people. But ultimately it's the story of the little people jockeying to survive being ground between the big wheels of politics and violence, and it's so ennervating to read that story with a queer romance as its beating, resonant heart.
What surprises did it hold – if any? The speed with which the sharp, dangerous net of intrigue suddenly beings to close! The opening third is lightly played, the characters circling each other with (metaphorical) arched eyebrows, toying with each other, but just before the mid-section all the distant dangers begin to close in, and suddenly... everything is on fire. It's been some time since a book gripped me quite as hard in such a 100%-living-inside-this, if-you-hurt-my-favourite-characters-i-will-OH-too-late way.
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you? There are two.
One is the ending; whether Amberlough ends as planned, or was tweaked to something that better segues into the sequels I don't know, but the denouement is unexpected, and powerful. But to say more would reveal too much.
This aside, the scene that stuck in my brain was one in which DePaul visits the Bee (the cabaret over which Aristide presides) with a colleague; he has to break up with Aristide, but cannot be seen with him alone, and so he foists his colleague upon him, achieving his goal without ever saying it aloud. It's a masterpiece of unspoken tensions and jibing agendas, and it's just wonderful.
Give me a good quote: There was the Aristide lying beside him in bed - the charming performer and monarch of the demimonde - and there was the other Aristide, the one he was supposed to arrest and interrogate. The one whose life and livelihood he was meant to raze.
The both knew where the boundaries lay. It was impossible to love someone when you spent your time digging at their secrets in the hope of undermining their career. And vice versa. But sudden this Cyril, his Cyril, was crying out in his sleep because the other Cyril was afraid.
He slid back beneath the covers. Wrapping himself around the fetal curve of Cyril's spine, Aristide slipped an arm into the divot of his waist, pulling him close.
What do you mean, bad reviews? Because writers don't get to reply to their bad reviews themselves. Paraphrased from goodreads:
"There wasn't enough detail about Amberlough. It's an invented city and I know nothing about it." Amberlough may be fictional, but Reader, may I introduce you to the concept of an 'analogue'?
"I didn't care about any of the politics because none of it was explain. Who are the Ospies anyway?" The Ospies may be fictional, but Reader, may I introduce you to the concept of 'allusion'? (In actual fact, these criticisms seem to come mainly from those who dnf-ed the book, and it is true that the first third of Amberlough doesn't particularly go out of its way to spoon-feed explanations of the politics or the characters' allegiances; the clear parallels to the rise of Nazi-ism in 1920s onwards Germany does half the work though. I did find myself a little at sea initially, but I've never been a fan of expositionary world-building, so I've never minded that feeling too much.)
"Aristide is a cliched gay character." NOW HOLD ON A F-ING MINUTE. Presumably because Aristide embodies numerous feminine, camp qualities? I applaud every effort to broaden the spectrum of gay representation but there is still a place for camp in that, especially when said character is aware of his own artifice and his own performance, when its use as a shield is explored, and when the very act of femininity in a man is a revolution in itself.
"I didn't care about Aristide and Cecil's romance." They are my precious babies, and you are wrong.
Is it available today? Out now from Tor Books, with sequel Armistice due imminently.