The Nebula award will be announced May 19, 2018, at this year’s Nebula Conference in Pittsburgh, PA. Since 1965, the Nebula Awards have been given each year for the best novel, novella, novelette, and short story eligible for that year’s award. This post is the third in a series of reviews of the nominees for this year’s Nebula award for best novel. The other nominees are Jade City by Fonda Lee, Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin, Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (which I reviewed for the Philip K. Dick award), and Autonomous by Annalee Newitz.
“Businesses on the banks of the Heyn, where it flowed behind the theatre district, were as likely to cater to pirates as to penniless aristocrats. Wealthy courtesans mingled with starving artists. The men wore jewels and the women suits and everyone else a mixture of both. The place was a magpie’s den of true gems and counterfeits, impeccable taste and outrageous lack thereof.”
Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough is truly a pleasure to read. Within the first 10 pages, I was laughing with the characters, dazzled by the setting, engaged by the story. Most of all I was impressed by how easy it was to read. Despite the alien world, the complicated social and political dynamics, the strange names and stranger characters, Donnelly’s pages just flew by. Getting into this story was effortless.
This is true second-world fantasy, meaning the entire world around Amberlough is fictitious. To bring life to this world (and to power her story) Donnelly has created a complex, internally consistent, and stimulating sociopolitical structure and set her story right at the heart of it. And by some magic she makes the whole thing easy as pie to grasp immediately. I’ve never seen another world laid so bare, so inviting, as effortlessly as Donnelly’s Amberlough. (Let’s be real, though, and all admit that that probably took miles of effort on her part, and heap praise on her for it.)
And the characters! I swoon … They’re living and broken and heartwrenching, each eking out what life they are allowed by fortune (and by police who look the other way). Truly, each of these characters is in their own way Gilbert and Sullivan’s “circumstance’s victim“.
I’ll admit that, in preparing myself to read this book I did do a bit of googling. This book is outside my wheelhouse enough that I wanted to know what the internet was saying about it – and I saw a TON of people saying that they found the character Cyril to be singularly unlikable. I have to say, I found him a wonderful character. The whole book is full of characters who must balance the right choice for them (given circumstance) against the moral choice – and I think Cyril is no different.
Speaking of characters, I’d like to give special mention to Donnelly’s character names. Throughout the book, we encounter characters with names as unique as they are – yet somehow they’re never so weird as to distract from the narrative. This is one of my (usually silent) pet peeves about second-world SFF, and it’s an actual pleasure to have encountered this book which stands as inky proof it can be done. So, too, are her place names fantastic.
“On arrival, he’d posted the letters at the desk, collected his keys, and asked for a bath before bed. Outside his window, the last shreds of sunset colored the horizon. The sea was a dark plane, and seemed still until Cyril closed his eyes and listened. Waves struck the gravel shore and receded, rhythmic as breath.”
We do also get carpet whose “tasseled end debouched onto the parlor” and “the snap of glasses biting each other in a toast”. It seems a small quibble when she’s given us so much, but it’s still a quibble.