It became clear to me relatively quickly when reading this novel that the only thing that distinguished it as fantasy is that it takes place in a fictional world which closely parallels our own, so don’t expect any magic, mythical creatures or epic battles. But hey, I read it, so I’m going to talk about it! In the book’s titular cosmopolitan setting of Amberlough, a radical and oppressive One-State Party nicknamed the “Ospies” is vying to seize control of the government and unite the surrounding countries into one socially conservative power. The novel follows three primary characters in the midst of this political upheaval, the first and second being Cyril Depaul: a spy under the employ of Amberlough’s government, and his secret lover: Astride Makricosta: a fabulous performer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret who also works as a smuggler. The third POV character is a dancer at said club named Cordelia Lehane, who also operates as a runner for Astride, and together these characters fight to preserve their freedom, livelihoods and survive in the face of this dangerous rising political power. While this novel lacks any sort of traditional fantasy elements to its world, Lara Elena Donnelly more than makes up for this with a lush and richly stylized world inhabited by a diverse cast of likable, complex and nuanced characters.
It was pretty obvious that this novel’s setting what meant to be some form of allegory for 1930’s Europe during the rise of the Nazis, with the Opsies’ fascist ideology closely mirroring that of said party. I’m certainly no expert on this vastly complicated portion of history, so many of Donnelly’s more subtle allegorical parallels were likely lost on me, but I appreciated that the novel focused less on the historical events themselves (which inspired those that transpire in the story) and more on how said events impacted the characters’ day-to-day lives. Bringing such huge and far-reaching events under a more focused lens allowed for a much more emotional and intimate reading experience and it was a smart decision on Donnelly’s part. I also loved what a vibrant and dazzling world she was able to create through her rich descriptions. The contrast created between the drab and muted feeling of the offices and streets of Amberlough with that of the color and decadence of the Bumble Bee Cabaret was striking and only further served to immerse the reader and make them just as invested as the characters in preserving such beauty and life.
Cyril was a very interesting character, and much like the rest of the main POV characters, I appreciated how smart and careful he was in navigating his politically tense and tumultuous climate. He certainly doesn’t support the Ospies or what they stand for, but he also does what he has to to protect himself and the few people that he truly cares for, including Astride… who was definitely my favorite character. He was witty, unapologetically arrogant, passionate and occasionally a bit of an ass, but that only made him more fascinating to me, as his charisma always shone through. Initially, Cyril and Astride’s relationship appears to be purely physical, and there is a great deal about their lives which they conceal from one-another. But as the Opsies (who would surely not stand for their homosexuality) continue to grow in power, they begin to emotionally open up and grow to realize how much they truly mean to and depend on each other. It definitely wasn’t your typical sort of romance but their great banter, dynamic and blossoming relationship was one of my favorite aspects of this book. Initially I didn’t much care for Cordelia and didn’t really see what purpose she served in the narrative, but as the novel went on I really liked her wit and sense of humor. She still doesn’t have as strong of a motivation as either Cyril or Astride, but I grew to appreciate how her acting selfishly wasn’t necessarily a bad quality, such was the case with many of this novel’s characters. Given the political climate of this story, many times the main characters had to act selfishly in order to get by (lying, stealing, cheating, etc.), and as the reader you may not agree with their decisions, but you understand why they make them. I always like some moral ambiguity in my characters and in that aspect this novel didn’t disappoint in its main cast. The supporting characters (for the most part) weren’t especially interesting, but they served their narratives purposes well enough.
My main complaint with this novel was probably the pacing, as it’s definitely a slow burn. Things really got going in the last third, and the story/characters were interesting enough until that point to keep my attention, but as someone who generally likes a bit more action and excitement in my stories I would have appreciated if said elements would have been able to be more consistently integrated into the overarching plot. But I understand that that isn’t necessarily a requisite for all readers.
Despite my few complaints with this book, overall I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I don’t typically reach for thriller noir-esque stories such as this, and if it hadn’t been categorized under “fantasy” at the book store I likely never would have found it, but I’m very happy that I did. It had a solid cast, interesting historical allegory, a great writing style and one heck of a cliffhanger which definitely had me eager to read the next book in this series! 4/5