Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

It is a sunny evening in London, today. I’m sitting at my desk with the mini-fan cooling me down and, okay, a cup of tea in front of me. Rain or shine, somethings don’t change.

Amberlough. Here is a book I ought not to be talking about. It is the first novel of an author named Lara Elena Donnelly who is American, and who until February this year I had never heard of.

So, how did our paths – so’s to speak – cross? Well, those of you follow me on Twitter (@secondachilles since you ask) will know that I spend most of my time thinking and writing about Alexander the Great.

This aspect of my work is divided into amateur historian (see my Alexander blog here) and creative writing. The latter is covered by my imagining of what Alexander and his closest friends would tweet about if they had access to Twitter during his expedition. Hence, I write the @AlexanderIII account here.

One day in February, Donnelly kindly followed Alexander. I don’t know if she still does but that doesn’t matter; the point is that after I saw the initial notification, as I sometimes do, I had a look at her bio. This led me to her website. Once there, I saw that she had just published her first novel and was immediately taken by its description. I decided to take a punt and bought the book from Amazon. The reason I mention all this is because I’d like to say that if you are an author, why not follow someone on Twitter; they may like what you do and without you ever saying a word – boom; you have a sale, a reader, and a fan. At least, that is what has happened with me.


So, what about the book? Amberlough is a spy thriller set in the fictional city of the title. There are two leads – Cyril, a gay police office and Aristide, his cabaret star lover. Neither of them are as pure as the driven snow and their lives get decidedly darker when a fascist political party called the One State Party (nicknamed the Ospies) wins an election to take control of Amberlough. The second half of the book, and particularly its final portion, is a true Dark Night of the Soul and Body for Cyril, Aristide and those close to them as the Ospies tighten their grip on power.

Amberlough draws its inspiration from multiple sources. John le Carré and Christopher Isherwood are very obvious models – Donnelly begins the book with quotations from their books (in the case of Isherwood it may be from the film Cabaret but lets credit him, anyway) – and in the case of le Carre is probably the reason I decided to take my punt as I love his books so much.

Amberlough owes a certain debt to the fantasy genre as well in that Donnelly doesn’t just tell a story but builds a world, one that not only has its own political structure and geography but colloquialisms as well. More on them in a moment. I am convinced that Aristide owes a little of himself to Anthony Blanche (Brideshead Revisited).

I’m sure I could go on but there’s no need. What is important is this: no matter how many wells Lara Elena Donnelly has drunk from, she has created a convincing and compelling world. Amberlough was originally meant to be a standalone novel. It’s encouraging that her publisher has recognised its value and commissioned two more books in the series.

I have to admit, though, reading the book wasn’t all plain sailing for me. Amberlough is rich in character, plot and language, and sometimes this made it to hard to keep up with it. I found keeping up with the characters’ use of colloquial terms most difficult to keep track of.

What I should have done is made a note of them as I read the book. More than that, though, I should have read it more regularly so that I didn’t read – forget – read – forget. I know better for next time – and, deo volente – there will be later in the year. I would very much like to read the book again so that I might pick up the details that I missed the first time round.

Was there anything I didn’t like the book? I think only the intrusion of one or two very obviously real life contemporary terms grated with me. Actually, there was just one: reaching out. This ugly phrase is, for me, still too new and ugly to fit into a novel set in an alternative universe. I assume that it has a more settled position in American English. (At this point, I have to admit that I did like the one Britishism that I spotted: the reference to a character’s flat rather than apartment).

Amberlough is a fun, intense, happy and dark, crazy and tragic read. After finishing it, I gave it an easy 8.5 out of 10 and still rate it that highly now. I think it is only available in hardback at the moment, but is worth whatever the hardback price is. When it comes out in paperback Amberlough will be even more worth its price. For now, though, thank you to L. E. Donnelly for giving Alexander the time of day and I look forward to book two next year.

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