The praise for Lara Elena Donnelly’s debut novel Amberlough has been voluminous. Out of 200 ratings on Goodreads it has an average score of 4.11 out of 5, which is better than a kick in the teeth.* One of my favourite bookish sites, “Literary Hub”, marked it out as one of February’s great novels you might have missed, quoting from Holly Black who described Amberlough as “James Bond by the way of Oscar Wilde.” When one of my mates asked on his Facebook feed what books were generating buzz and hype Amberlough was the clear winner. This is a book that people clearly love, a book that is likely to feature heavily on award ballots next year, a book that was initially meant to be standalone but has now spawned a trilogy.
Of course, I didn’t finish it.
I put Amberlough down around the halfway mark (shortly after Cyril and Cordelia attend a party, for those interested). I felt guilty doing so, partly because I always feel guilty when I don’t finish a novel – well, with the exception of that awful shit nominated for genre awards a couple of years back – and partly because I genuinely wanted to enjoy this book. Yes, the James Bond / Oscar Wilde comparison is pure hyperbole, but even so a work described as the first gay fantasy spy novel should have been in my bailiwick. Instead I found it tedious.
I didn’t mind the setting – Amberlough is essentially Paris before the Nazis. And initially I thought the prose was strong, like the neat use of “freckled” in this sentence: “An early spring storm freckled the bedroom window with rain”.
But, the characters…
The worst offender is Cyril DePaul. He’s meant to be a master-spy and yet he’s utterly incompetent. His last mission went ball-ups (which is why he now has a desk-job, even if it’s as division head). He’s fallen in love with a man who he’s meant to be keeping an eye on – that would be Aristide Makricosta, Amberlough’s foremost smuggler (and emcee at the Bumble Bee Cabaret) and when his boss decides to send him on a mission to infiltrate the One State Party (a fascist group on the rise) his cover is blown almost immediately. To be fair this might have something to do with a mole in his department… but then again this would be a department that he’s a division head of. Cyril then spends the rest of the novel – OK, the chunk I read – struggling with his guilt now that he’s become a double agent for the OSP (annoyingly referred to as the Ospies). It’s extremely hard to take Cyril seriously. If I was being charitable I’d say that Donnelly was subverting the cliché of the competent super-spy, but there’s something so clueless and banal about Cyril that if it is a parody it’s one that undermines the reality of the novel.
The other main characters like Aristide and Cordelia Lehane are non-events in as much as their character development is limited. To be fair to Cordelia, of the near half of the book that I read she gets little screen-time (something I’m sure would have increased if I’d kept going). But that’s another problem with Amberlough. For a novel purporting to be a spy-thriller, the plot meanders. The first quarter is spent setting up the setting and the political situation – that’s fine – but in amongst this we have Cyril preparing for his mission, which ends in failure and pages and pages of the politics and sexual shenanigans at the Bumble Bee – which I admit for some will be a thrill but for me was a yawn-fest. Maybe the novel needed to begin with Cyril already a turncoat (though not necessarily revealed to the reader). I don’t know. All I can say is that poor characterisation coupled with ponderous pacing and my attention drifted to the point that I found the book a chore.
All that said I probably would have kept reading if I’d not read an article on Literary Hub entitled, How Many Books Will You read Before You Die. I found the answer so disturbing that Amberlough became the first casualty of my Stop Reading Because Life Is Too Short policy. I would be interested though to hear from people who loved the novel. I warn you though, I won’t accept the argument that the book gets good after the halfway mark.
* The rating on Amazon is 4.9 but with only 44 ratings. Still not a bad effort.