Armistice (Amberlough Dossier)

Written by Lara Elena Donnelly
Review by Kristen McDermott

Cabaret meets The Alice Network in this espionage trilogy imagining an alternate pre-WWII Europe. The first novel, Amberlough (HNR 80), featured two charismatic protagonists: urbane spy Cyril DePaul and his lover, the cabaret MC (and underground rebel) Aristide Makricosta. Their relationship is tested when their cosmopolitan state (Amberlough, an Anglicized version of 1930s Berlin) falls under the control of the fascist One State Party (the Ospies). Their efforts to resist — which resonated strongly with fans of LGBTQ speculative fiction, evidenced by the novel’s nomination for Nebula and Lambda awards — were aided by a third point-of-view character, plucky Cordelia Lehane, an opportunistic dancer in Aristide’s cabaret who becomes a resistance fighter as well.

The second novel (which doesn’t require, but benefits from reading the first) picks up three years later, with Cordelia on the run and Aristide lying low in a glamorous new setting that resembles a blend of Morocco, Mumbai, and Hollywood. They are joined by DePaul’s sister, Lillian, who works under duress for the Ospies but is tempted into a conspiracy to aid the Ospies’ foreign enemies. The plot is more carefully crafted and suspenseful than that of the first volume, which focused more on character and sexy atmosphere.

Some reviewers of the first volume have wondered why the author has bothered to recreate pre-WWII history with simple name-changes, but the second volume, set in a matriarchal utopia of non-Western art and culture, makes it clear that Donnelly is attempting to reimagine the spy novel free of heteronormative, patriarchal, Eurocentric restrictions. The result is highly entertaining and also contains a number of uncomfortable parallels to modern-day political shifts, offering a clear sense of just what is at stake if totalitarianism masked as moral rectitude is allowed to prevail.