THE AMBERLOUGH DOSSIER, by Lara Elena Donnelly


Amberlough, Armistice, & Amnesty
By Lara Elena Donnelly
Tor Books — 2017 – 2019
ISBN 9780765383822  — 416 Pages — Paperback
ISBN 9781250173560 — 400 Pages — Paperback
ISBN 9781250173621 — 384 Pages — Paperback
Source: Publisher


In 2017 Lara Elena Donnelly published her debut novel, Amberlough, set in the imaginary region of Gedda and written with the point-of-view of three protagonists living in Amberlough City. Cyril DePaul works at home and abroad as an intelligence agent for the Amberlough nation-state. But Cyril’s professional responsibilities conflict with his personal life: he has passionately fallen for Aristide Makricosta, a stripper/performer at the Busy Bee nightclub who also happens to be a criminal running a small-time smuggling operation. Cordelia Lehane is another stripper/performer at the Busy Bee who sometimes does smuggling runs for Aristide, but who mostly occupies herself with illicit drug sales and sleeping alternatively with the club’s owner or its resident comedian.
While on a sensitive mission in a neighboring nation-state, Cyril’s cover is blown amid the rise of a fascist political party called the One State Party. Cyril learns that members of the party, known as Ospies, also have plans for gaining control of Amberlough. With few options available to him, Cyril strikes a deal to save himself, and Aristide, from the rise of a regime opposed to homosexuality. As the conservative Ospies gain power in Amberlough, those at the central countercultural hub of the Busy Bee must also figure out how to survive the ramifications of Cyril’s decision and Ospie control.
The plot and setting of Amberlough take unmistakable historical inspiration from Germany’s Weimer Republic and the rise of the Nazi party. The wonderful art deco design for the covers of the novel and its sequels reinforce this period; the spirits of the characters do likewise. With such close parallels to reality, it’s at first baffling to understand why Donnelly chose to place her story in an invented universe. There is little to the novel that could otherwise define it as speculative fiction: no magic of fantasy, no steampunkesque tech of SF. Donnelly wouldn’t have even had to make Amberlough an alternate history, it could easily exist as straight-up mainstream historical literature. 
Divergence from history and the need for an invented world become clearer with the sequels. In 2018 and 2019 Tor Books released Armistice and Amnesty, respectively, to complete the trilogy. Despite ending in a bit of a cliffhanger, Amberlough does work thematically on its own. But deeper appreciation for what Donnelly has created comes from reading the trilogy as three parts of one singular work. In fact, the concept of three-in-one serves as a structural framework on multiple levels of the Amberlough Dossier trilogy. Donnelly divides each of the novels into three distinct parts that essentially 1) set the characters onto stage, 2) introduce/develop the challenge they face, and 3) usher in a denouement and conclusion. Each novel also features three point-of-view characters that together create a whole perspective of the plot.
As the series progresses following the Nazi-like rise of the Ospies in Amberlough, the plot and action don’t develop as one might expect, diverging from parallels to German history and the onset of a world war. The starts of Armistice and Amnesty are also marked by time jumps where significant developments in the characters and their socio-political situation have happened off-stage. This generates a thematic impression where Donnelly is not directly showing us how her characters are changing the world. Instead, they do a great deal off-stage and then she shows us how they respond to and survive the new situations they find themselves in as a result. For example, by the close of Amberlough the three protagonists (Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia) are forced to flee the Ospie rise or stay to face its oppression with imprisonment or worse. By the start of Armistice, Cordelia now leads in exile an armed opposition to the Ospies. Aristide has found safe haven abroad as an actor, but as much as he’d like, he cannot forget or completely walk away from what he has fled. Due to events in the first book, Cyril is absent from Armistice, but replaced by the point-of-view of his diplomat sister, Lilian, who is merely mentioned in the first book. Cordelia sits out from the trio of point-of-view characters in Amnesty, making Aristide the one constant throughout the trilogy.
Aristide represents a fitting character to serve as the series constant, not merely due to the alliteration of his name with the novels’ titles. Quite simply, he is the most fun. The Han Solo of the trilogy, he is the devilish rogue who secretly has a heart. The guy who feigns indifferent independence, but who has actually fallen in love and is willing to make sacrifices for those he cares about. Aristide is a performer through-and-through, a man who hides his true name and past, who puts on affectation off the stage, speaking with an intentional stutter and dressing with a fashion to appear far more frivolous than reality. As a reader you can’t but help being equally enthralled by Aristide as Cyril. Though all the characters grow between the three novels, Aristide is the one character whose growth mostly occurs on the pages, rather than primarily during the time that passes between the novels. 
With its time jumps and off-stage action, the plot of the Amberlough Dossier series is not the source of its strength or success. I honestly found this a bit of a disappointment, and while plowing through them I couldn’t quite figure out why I still found them to be enthralling page-turners. After thinking a bit, I realized that it was the characters that had captured my attention, it really was like a character-driven ‘literary’ novel that just happened to be in a made-up world. Each of the characters is gloriously imperfect and quirky in their own endearing ways. Despite their faults, they pull through and survive changing political landscapes and crises, or sacrifice themselves to allowing the others to survive. Donnelly achieves her idiosyncratic characters with her richly descriptive language, but also a knack at giving them their unique voices. Aside from the fictitious geo-political names, Donnelly also develops an endearingly distinctive slang that Cordelia, in particular, uses.
By the end of the series the only significant criticism that I still had remaining pertains to an absent sense of place in the novels. Donnelly invents this universe and Gedda and beyond, but the reader is largely left uncertain of where exactly events are taking place, how locations relate to one another, or how political changes that happen off-stage actually came to pass. This makes it difficult to really appreciate any of the world-building aspects of a series that otherwise has little in the realms of the speculative genre. Each novel also comes with an identical map of Gedda that has to be the most useless map I have ever seen in a SFF novel, particularly when events of Armistice largely take place elsewhere.
Nonetheless, like its characters the Amberlough Dossier series charms despite its imperfections. It says a lot about what common people can accomplish in a harsh world of setbacks despite being outsiders, counterculture to a system of power. It shows that those accomplishments become born of the small decisions that individuals make because of their relationship with and love for others, whether familial or romantic. And it shows that the consequences of those decisions can be both joyous and devastating, but in either way can be met with courage and compassion.

SORCERER TO THE CROWN by Zen Cho

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Sorcerer to the Crown
(Sorcerer Royal Book 1)
By Zen Cho
Ace Books – September 2015
ISBN 9780425283370 – 371 Pages – Hardcover
Source: AceRoc Stars


Out in paperback this month – if you missed it during its initial release – Zen Cho’s debut historical fantasy novel Sorcerer to the Crown generated a large amount of positive buzz prior to and immediately following its publication last fall. It has since grabbed a Locus Award nomination for Best First Novel. Sorcerer to the Crown‘s style unquestionably draws comparison to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Accurate as far as genre, setting, and general style, Sorcerer to the Crown happily lacks overwhelming girth and contains enough fun to not take itself too seriously. Also, while it took me several attempts to really get into Clarke’s novel and discover its virtues, Sorcerer to the Crown grabbed me right from its setup.
Yet, Cho’s novel also suffers from an unevenness, despite its shorter length. Following high hopes from its opening my engagement began to languish toward the middle of the novel, before picking back up again for its satisfying conclusion. Although not a perfect novel, it is entertaining and a fairly unique take on historical fantasy. An impressive debut for Malaysian writer Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown makes me warmly anticipate the next volume and any other storyline she may write.
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Sorcerer to the Crown plays wonderfully with expectations, so if you are interested in reading it already, but know nothing more about it than the above paragraphs, maybe you should stop.
Both the name of the author and the book’s cover made me expect that this would deal with courts in Asia. Awful Expectation: someone of Malaysian descent must be writing about something set in the Far East with Asian characters! This is of course absurd, which I realized as I recognized the novel’s setting of England.
Freed slave Zacharias Wythe is the new Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers, the respected British society of magicians. Zacharias Wythe, however, is not much respected. Formerly page and apprentice to Sir Stephen, the previous Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias’ background and prior social standing make him a difficult figure for the establishment to accept. Complicating matters is the uncertain nature of Sir Stephen’s demise, and how the Staff of the Sorcerer Royal’s office passed to its successor.
Balancing in a precarious position, Zacharias maneuvers to thwart conspiracies to depose him, manage international political crises, and discover the reasons behind the sudden depleting of England’s magical stocks. Zacharias finds an unlikely ally to his position in Prunella Gentleman, a young woman of exceptional wit and talent who would be even more feared and ostracized by the magical establishment for the simple fact that she is female.
Though set roughly in this fantastical Regency-era England, Sorcerer to the Crown thus focuses on themes of class, race, and gender within a framework populated by creatures of intelligence beyond humans, from dragons to the inhabitants of Fairyland. The novel involves a diversity of characters – from Western to Eastern, from realistic to mythical. And Cho writes each with respect. However, she also writes them a bit too statically. Even the main characters show little growth through the novel. A sense of character evolution only comes through the revelation of secrets to the reader, explanations of why the characters are how they are. Their feelings and personality don’t go that kind of evolution and this creates problems in heroes and villains. For instance, introduction of a romantic angle at the novel’s close thereby feels flat and unsatisfying.
After first becoming immersed in the world and plot of Sorcerer to the Crown, I found the novel’s momentum begins to fail. Partly this is from the characterization mentioned above. The plot also drags a bit, with no significantly new information or surprises coming the reader’s way and challenges to the protagonists being summarily overcome without much strain. The ease of the protagonist’s victory doesn’t end, but the plot picks back up amid new discoveries and revelations, climaxing in an end that addresses the social and political themes of the novel effectively.
Ultimately, Sorcerer to the Crown is impressive, with beautiful prose by Cho and a charming, whimsical tone that addresses realistic human concerns with hope, all in a fantastic setting without the grim-dark. If only the Establishments of our Earth could so easily be progressively altered as in Sorcerer to the Crown! A delightful fantasy, but definitely a fantasy in that regard.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via the AceRoc Stars group in exchange for an honest review.

JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN by Elsa Hart

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Jade Dragon Mountain
By Elsa Hart
Minotaur Books – September 2015
ISBN 9781250072320 – 336 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


This debut novel by Elsa Hart was a real pleasant surprise, a book with a captivating story, characters, and prose. The second of two mystery/crime novels that I recently read to feature a non-Western setting and Jesuit characters, Jade Dragon Mountain stood out as giving a strong sense of historical setting and avoiding genre clichés while keeping a traditional murder mystery structure. The sequel comes out this September, so now would be a perfect time for mystery fans to discover this notable new series.
It is the early 1700s on the border of China and Tibet, a little over half a century since the founding of the Qing dynasty. Exiled imperial librarian Li Du arrives at a remote Chinese border town among a diverse host of citizens and travelers gathered for an extraordinary ceremony: a solar eclipse commanded by the authority of the Emperor himself. When a Jesuit astronomer is found murdered in an official’s home the authorities are quick to point fingers at bandits, but Li Du suspects the murder is far from random. Surrounded by strangers who hide secrets and divulge lies, Li Du struggles between the choices of departing his homeland in acceptance of his exile, or following his instincts and conscious through an enquiry that could lead to repercussions both personal and imperial.
The pacing of Hart’s writing for this historical Chinese murder mystery is spot on. Her plots, character developments, and sentences neither rush nor needlessly delay.
“He imagined then that the shifting clouds contained thousands of years, and that he had seen the same tree in two different times. What if every moment of that tree’s existence, the whole of its past and its future, existed at once, here in this blank and infinite cloud? An eerie suggestion of his own insubstantiality pulled at him. He, too, was inside the void.”
Measured, flowing prose such as this make much of Jade Dragon Mountain a story to savor, without sacrificing readability or the entertainment of the plot’s twisting surprises. Hart’s style also manages to successfully merge disparate elements – historical realism, an ‘exotic’ locale, folklore, romance, comedy, politics, social commentary, and of course mystery – into one cohesive whole.
I’ve mentioned the good character development in Hart’s debut novel, and this is certainly true for its protagonist Li Du. The other novel I recently read with surface similarities to this one had a Jesuit scientist in the role of detective, a ‘casting’ that echoes with familiarity for the crime genre. Aside from giving that Jesuit protagonist background training to make him of use for catching a killer, his existence as a Jesuit within the setting of that novel wasn’t much explored. With Jade Dragon Mountain the Occident-styled Jesuit is the victim, and the detective is a man solely immersed in Chinese culture, a man of high intellect – but not one you would immediately pick to fill the role of investigator. Hart augments that unlikelihood by making Li Du an imperial exile, a Chinese man now separated from a huge part of his culture while still being emotionally and spiritually linked with it. And that makes Li Du very fascinating. Seeing his further development through events and interactions keeps holding the reader’s interest.
The weakest aspect of Hart’s debut novel though stems from her inclusion of so many characters. It is important for upping the level of unknowns the story needs as a mystery and it allows for a diversity of character points of views and interactions across cultures. However on the more individual scale these secondary characters often lose resolution. Aside from Li Du, a story-teller named Hamza is the character who stands out in memory; the other supporting cast intermesh, and keeping track of may could take some effort in the early parts of the novel. I do also wish the female characters had greater presence, though by the final portion of the novel Li Du does interact with one more – and therefore so does the reader. Hamza is just delightful. He lends a light comic relief to the story and spins secondary tales that are just as fun to experience as the novel as a whole. I hope he appears in future stories featuring Li Du.
The White Mirror, the second book of this ‘Li Du mystery series’ comes out on 6th September 2016; I wish I hadn’t gotten behind in reviewing because I would have eagerly jumped on an early copy of it. This is a series I definitely plan to continue with and I will be purchasing a hard copy of this first novel. Hart’s novel offers a fresh setting and a variety of cultures to explore from multiple perspectives, so I don’t predict it is the kind of mystery series that would easily slip into tired formula.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES by Aliya Whiteley

 

The Arrival of Missives
By Aliya Whiteley
Unsung Stories – May 2016
ISBN 9781907389375 – 120 Pages – Paperback
Source: Direct from Publisher


The weight and devastation of the Great War (World War I) has ended. Young Shirley Fearn looks toward her future with hopeful dreams that echo English society’s wish to transition from the bleak, meaningless tragedy of war to a freedom of bright, purposeful possibility. The only child of a village farmer, Shirley has grown up under the expectation that she would settle as a housewife, marrying an eligible young man who could take over the farm. Finishing her schooling and entering into maturity, however, Shirley feels driven towards other goals: leaving a domestic life to train as a schoolteacher at a nearby college.
A strong respect and romantic infatuation with her schoolteacher, an injured veteran named Mr. Tiller, helps fuel those goals even more. But her illusions of who Mr. Tiller is and her place in his life become shattered when he comes to her with a wild story of visions of a future disaster, and demands for actions Shirley must take to prevent its fulfillment. With the approaching village celebration of May Day, the crowning of a new May Queen, and the dawn of a new Spring, Shirley is pulled between the expectations of her family, the demands of a mentor, her developing sexuality, and the independent drives of her spirit and intellect.
When Unsung Stories contacted me about providing a copy of this for review I really hesitated. Starting in a full time faculty position has gotten me really ‘behind’ in reviews that I’m just now getting back in the groove of putting up/submitting. Did I really want to take on something more? As a novella it is a short length commitment, but the novella form is not something I gravitate toward. And the last (and unfortunately only) book I’ve read from the press previously disappointed. But something made me say ‘okay I’ll give it a look’. I am so glad that I did because The Arrival of Missives is a beautifully written story, a joy to read that actually shows me how effective an appropriately constructed novella can be.
I hadn’t immediately recognized Aliya Whiteley’s name (as accomplished as she is), though I later realized I had previously read one of her stories in Strange Horizons. In a way this is fortunate as it really did make this new novella a complete surprise. And who doesn’t love becoming enraptured with the writing of someone unexpectedly? However, whether you are familiar with Whiteley or not, this bit of literature with a touch of genre science fiction and romance is worth considering for an afternoon’s pleasure.
At its core the novella is a simple coming of age story, but Whiteley expertly constructs it to address the themes on multiple levels, visiting the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ on multiple levels from personal, societal, historical, and science fictional (time travel). Shirley is a richly drawn character who struggles with issues of identity and independence, but in a way that avoids simple answers or cliché. The other characters are less developed, and the motivations and psyche of Mr. Tiller feel uncertain beyond the need to fulfill the plot. But as a novella the focus on Shirley and her point of view – which itself is confused about Mr. Tiller’s intentions and moral authority – make this necessary.
The language of The Arrival of Missives fits its setting, characters, and themes perfectly, and is filled with a range of emotion and descriptive color that simply make the novella a pleasant and engaging read. I recommend giving it a read.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher  in exchange for an honest review.

THE GODDESS OF SMALL VICTORIES, by Yannick Grannec

The Goddess of Small Victories
(La Déesse des petites victoires)
By Yannick Grannec
(Translated by Willard Wood)
Other Press – October 2014
ISBN 9781590516362 – 464 Pages – Hardback
Source: Publisher via Atticus Review


FOLLOWING THE COLLAPSE

“In 1931, soon after finishing his doctorate at the University of Vienna, mathematician Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems that demonstrate that a closed system of axioms cannot be used to demonstrate its own consistency. The broad themes and implications of Gödel’s work are popularly known in the foundation of Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Recently, in La Déesse des petites victoires (The Goddess of Small Victories), Yannick Grannec approaches the emotions and personal events around Gödel’s life and achievements through the point of view of his wife, Adele…”

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review for Atticus Review.

Cover reveal: STEEL MAGIC by J.L. Gribble

I have been away for FAR too long, but I’m pleased to come back to making updates and posting new reviews starting with a cover reveal for a book from Raw Dog Screaming Press that I’m really excited to dig into:

_Steel Magic-Jacket.indd

Debuting 6th July 2016 • PRE-ORDER

Funerals are usually the end of the story, not the beginning.

Newly graduated warrior-mages Toria Connor and Kane Nalamas find themselves the last remaining mages in the city when a mage school teacher mysteriously falls ill and dies. But taking over the school themselves isn’t in the cards. They’re set to become professional mercenaries-if they make it through the next 18 months as journeymen first.

The debate over whether to hunt mutated monsters in the Wasteland or take posh bodyguard jobs is put on hold when a city elder hires them to solve the mystery of the disappearing mages. Toria and Kane’s quest brings them to the British colonial city of New Angouleme, where their initial investigation reveals that the problem is even greater than they feared.

But when a friend is kidnapped, they’ll have to travel to the other side of the globe to save her, save themselves, and save magic itself.

I previously read the first book, STEEL VICTORY, in Gribble’s Steel Empire series. It is a very entertaining urban fantasy / alternate history, and I recommend checking it out if you haven’t yet. Gribble’s characters stood out particularly strongly for me. So I’m eager to see what new directions they go in development.

Debuting 6th July 2016 • PRE-ORDER

About the Cover Artist:  Bradley Sharp

Bradley Sharp was born in 1977 in Oxfordshire, UK. From a young age he filled many sketch books, so it only made sense to study Graphic Communication at Nene University, where he received a BA Honors degree in 1997.

But the real world called Sharp away from academics, so he traveled around the globe a couple of times, working as a graphic designer. Now he makes a living by designing magazine spreads, but freelances with vector illustrations, allowing him to create something far-removed from what he does in his nine-to-five job.

Sharp finds vector to be an easy tool and believes anyone can use it. “I’d say my artwork is nothing more than glorified doodling. I like the logical inconsistencies of surrealism and find inspiration from many places such as music or the science fiction genre. Dog Star’s novels lend themselves well to my style. I look forward to working with DSB in the future, and hope fans will like the imagery as much as they enjoy the words.” Find Sharp’s work online at his website.

About the Author: J.L. Gribble

Gribble photo color

By day, J. L. Gribble is a professional medical editor. By night, she does freelance fiction editing in all genres, along with reading, playing video games, and occasionally even writing. She is currently working on the Steel Empires series for Dog Star Books, the science-fiction/adventure imprint of Raw Dog Screaming Press. Previously, she was an editor for the Far Worlds anthology.

Gribble studied English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She received her Master’s degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where her debut novel Steel Victory was her thesis for the program.

She lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, with her husband and three vocal Siamese cats. Find her online on her websiteFacebook , on Twitter, and on Instagram.

 

THE DOORS YOU MARK ARE YOUR OWN, by Okla Elliott & Raul Clement

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The Doors You Mark Are Your Own
By Okla Elliott and Raul Clement
Dark House Press – 28th April 2015
ISBN 9781940430201 – 724 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher via Atticus Review


The Historical Literary Epic Meets the Post-Apocalyptic Future
The Doors You Mark Are Your Own is the first part of an ambitious amalgam of literary fiction spliced with post-apocalyptic and historical genres. Written by Elliott and Clement with the conceit that they are ‘translating’ a historical account written in ‘Slovnik’ by the fictional Aleksandr Tuvim, the saga reads on one level as an engrossing biography and social commentary of a speculative, future city-state. On another level it contains rich, interconnected character-driven narratives. Balancing epic world-building and other science fiction genre traits with literary depth, the authors take some of the best elements from across literature to fashion an addictively entertaining novel…”

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review for Atticus Review.