I received an advanced copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review! And trust me, all these words are coming straight from the heart. This is like, some of the best fiction happening in speculative and LGBT+ fiction right now. Amberlough was one of the best reads in fantasy of 2017, and this is just as damn good.
This follows on a few years after Amberlough, but set in a neighbouring country, Porachis. We’re reintroduced to Cordelia and Aristide, changed from the years of oppression by the Ospies – Cordelia now a revolutionary leader, Aristide a high-profile refugee/film director. We’re also joined by Lillian DePaul, Cyril’s sister and press attache for the Geddan embassy in Porachis – very much a part of the OSP regime as she is being crushed by it.
The plot that ensues is the three of these players drawn to each other as scandals unfurl and secrets are unearthed, all in the way of undermining the regime.
This plot is beyond excellent. Where Amberlough was the excruciating descent into oppression and conflict, this is deep in scheming and subterfuge, our protagonists desperately trying to dig out what has become entrenched, all while constantly wondering who to trust, and how much. The pacing is so tight, the novel is constantly exciting and compelling. It’s not as fraught and explosive as Amberlough, it’s the second-book-in-a-trilogy in that way, but it’s just as tense and achingly emotional – maybe even more so. Much of the emotional crux of the novel still rides on the relationship between Aristide and Cyril, and it was so damn satisfying to see a queer relationship that important to the narrative.
And again, I love Donnelly’s prose as much as I did in the first book. I love the way she describes her characters’ movements, habits – it actually makes the story more vivid and lively, rather than bogging it down in details.
Donnelly is able to give just as much time and importance to the world and the characters, who are still so heartbreakingly wonderful.
The worldbuilding is still fantastic – Porachis read to me as an Indo-Arab influenced country, and it absolutely came to life for me. I used to live in an Arab country with a very high South Asian population, so I could vividly recall my own memories just from the descriptions of the streets, the weather, the food and the restaurants. It was such a vibrant, refreshing location for a thriller/spec-fic/historical novel like this one, and I loved it. It had its own distinct societal norms and mores that influenced characters’ actions and thoughts, its own political system, its own cultural, including a thriving film industry that was so old Hollywood and Bollywood in one – such a great mirror to hold against the now-changed Gedda of the first book.
And oh, the characters are just still the absolute highlight, which is a pretty amazing thing to say in a book where everything is done so well. I loved the addition of Lillian, another fantastic female protagonist, just as flawed and thorny as the rest but still so complex and sympathetic – because like so many others in the cast, the ferocity in her to protect what she loves just lights her character up like a spotlight (;) hehe). You could see how she and Cyril were raised the same, the similarities between them as siblings, but how their lives took them completely different directions. The new cast in Porachis were great, too – Pulan, Daoud, Prince Asiyah, and oh Jinadh, whom I loved so very very much. You know it’s a good book when I find the het relationship sexy as hell, and Lillian and Jinadh’s chemistry was amazing.
Memmediv is back, and his character is explored further from the shadowy figure we saw through Cyril’s perspective, and Sofie Keeler and her family is back in the mix, too, always great to see. The rest of our returning cast? So, so superb. The way Cordelia and Ari had grown since the last books was so interesting to read – seemingly in entirely opposite directions, with Cordelia becoming key to the Geddan resistance and Ari trying as hard as he can to ignore the situation in Gedda entirely. I still love that these people in particular have been chosen as the series’ protagonists, the ones who drive the action – the ‘freaks’ and misfits of society. They were just as fantastic to read about as in the first book, both so much damn fun but their stories so damn heartaching, I love them so much.
And what I loved most was being able to see what all our protagonists, including Cyril of the last book, look through each others’ eyes. Cordelia’s descriptions of Ari still kill me, I love their friendship, and the bond between Ari and Lillian from the start of the novel continued to be such a great, raw, aching emotional point, so amazing to read. Donnelly didn’t skimp anywhere on drawing out the most painful emotional conflicts and moments, which is exactly what I love to read in my fiction about anything else. This novel very much focused on grief and loss, and anger and injustice, and how this can drive people to act, to just keep going even when you’re so tired. It’s something that we can really take to heart in this political climate, so canny.
I’m so, so, so damn excited to see how the rest of the series plays out, and what Donnelly will publish in the future, because she is so talented and writes everything I want how I want it, I feel spoiled just by reading one of her books.