Rating: 4.75 stars
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Following an undercover case gone wrong, the Foxhole sets Cyril up as the Master of the Hounds. The government may have given him a glorified desk job, but he still has to keep up to snuff on the seedier elements in the city of Amberlough—and there’s no better place for getting information than the Bee, the best cabaret around.
Night after night, Aristide takes to the stage and works a crowd of razors, punters, and others into a frenzy with his racy performances. With his side business-cum-empire, he thought bedding a hound like Cyril would mean easy access to state secrets. Yet after years of seeing one another and keeping up certain pretenses, neither one can quite admit he is only after what the other knows.
Unrest, however, is simmering below the surface of the city. With an unpredictable election looming ever closer, Cyril is sent back into the field that literally tore him up and nearly took his life. He is wary but resigned. The freedom and liberties Amberlinian society affords to all, not to mention Cyril and Aristide’s own relationship, is being threatened by a group from a neighboring state called the Ospies. It’s up to Cyril to infiltrate their ranks and ruin their chances at winning the election.
What Cyril doesn’t know is that his cover was blown before he ever made contact with his marks. By the time the cards are on the table, it’s too late for him to do anything more than commit treason. He’s stuck working for the Ospies and in return, they just might let him—and just maybe one ‘friend’—live if he proves useful enough.
As the weeks pass, the stakes raise ever higher as Cyril works desperately, and rather successfully, to help power consolidate around the Ospies. The colorless, rigid fist of the Ospie regime closes ever tighter around Amberlough. Soon, every facet of life in the city starts changing and all the carefully woven threads surrounding Cyril, Aristide, and others begin tightening like nooses. Only time will tell if they will make it out alive, if not unscathed.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a fabulously lyrical quasi-tragedy. I loved (almost) every moment of it. Donnelly masterfully paints lush scenes of excess and money with the cabaret and balances it with the treacherous aspects of high-risk politics. The characters are richly developed and I loved seeing them interact and react to the every-changing events unfolding in their city.
Ostensibly, the action is told through three main characters. First are Cyril, who works for the government but is forced to turn traitor and Aristide, a cabaret performer with a side business in all manner of illicit affairs. Despite being on opposite sides of the law, they’re able to keep their professional lives separate from their real selves. There are several hints throughout the story that clue the reader into the fact that both Cyril and Aristide feel much more deeply for one another than they’ve let on…and perhaps truly been aware of…until it’s possibly too late. Even so, the bittersweet realizations often feel so full of promise, I was madly flipping pages to find out one would react to the grand (and not so grand) gestures of the other. Like, for example, how hard Cyril works to ensure his act of treachery will not only save his skin, but Aristide’s as well.
Next is Cordelia, another star at the cabaret who does small time deals in illicit substances. She’s a firebrand on-page and drives a lot of the action. Part of it is because of her long-standing, albeit chilly, professional relationship with Aristide and the new professional relationship she develops with Cyril. Through her, Cyril and Aristide have one more way to keep tabs on one another. Though Cordelia is a strong character in her own right and she has plenty of on-page time wrapped up in events that are uniquely hers.
While I would say the world Donnelly created and the characters with which it is filled are fantastic in their own right, I was blown away by the ending. I can’t even remember the last time I wanted to cry over a book. The last fifty or so pages I was reading with an actual pursed-lip power-frown on my face and a huge knot in my stomach. As I mentioned above, I’d say this is pretty much a glorious, magnificent tragedy. The resolutions to Cyril’s and Aristide’s and Cordelia’s stories are as close to “rocks fall, everyone dies” as you can get without actually, necessarily dropping rocks and killing everyone. I loved seeing the sentiments that come pouring out as we, and the characters, reach both literal and figurative ends. I loved seeing the strength, and maybe the weakness, of these characters. They are not infallible and they are not ever hopeful, but perhaps they will go on.
Set against a backdrop of political espionage, I found the entire story well seasoned with scenes that try to explain to the reader who’s who and what’s what. In fact, very early in the book, the reader is simply given the facts about what areas around Amberlough have what sympathies. That said—and this is my one sticking point—it was difficult for me to remember all the political backdrop. For one thing, it was introduced so early, I didn’t even realize the information about different parts of a made-up country was going to be desperately important later in the book, never mind which figurehead was leading those areas. Being so early in the book, I wasn’t even sure the reader is meant to be rooting for Amberlough or not. Perhaps that was the point, but as the political plays start really affecting our characters, it was hard at times for me to read about X place or Y person and immediately connect that with future strife for the characters.
This is a sophisticated book with sophisticated characters. Relationships made are tried, some are broken, and some are proven heartbreakingly stronger than anticipated. The ending is superb, lacking any drop of saccharine, yet offering the slimmest glimmer of hope (if you’re an optimist anyway). I would recommend this book to anyone.
Thanks for a brilliant review. This goes on my wishlist 🙂