With the second book in Lara Elena Donnelly’s series The Amberlough Dossier published last week, we thought it was the perfect time to invite her on the blog!
Combining spy thrillers with fantasy was a stroke of genius: a genre mash-up made in heaven. Why isn’t it done more often? Were there any unexpected ways the two trope-heavy genres worked particularly well together?
Well gosh, thanks for saying so. I don’t know why they aren’t mixed together more often. A great example, if you’re looking for more, is Tamora Pierce’s duology Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen, which has long been my favorite set of Tammy books. It uses the magic extant in the world she’s created to excellent effect in tradecraft, which is I think is one of the ways the two genres can mesh. If you’re operating in a low-tech world but you want to do some high-tech spying, and you’re lucky enough to have magic floating around, there you go!
In the Amberlough Dossier, however, nobody has the Gift. The tropes are far more Spy Novel than they are High or even Urban Fantasy. It’s a setting that doesn’t lend itself well to established fantasy tropes, since there’s no magic, or many of the markers of traditional fantasy.
I do think one of the ways the two genres meshed well in the Dossier is that when a reader is introduced to a new fantasy world, names, people, and places are a bit meaningless until the reader gets a grip on the story. Spy fiction, I find, tends to do the same thing. For a while at the outset, it’s usually unclear who’s who and what everyone wants. Only by sleuthing can you suss it out. John Le Carré is a great one for this. When you open one of his books, you usually hit the story in medias res. Or sometimes you show up long after the main event has finished, and are left sifting through the sordid details. For some people that can be frustrating, but I love putting the pieces together.
The art deco setting is integral to your series. How much did the setting influence your story or could your story not have worked in any other setting? And what is it about art deco that has us still so enamoured?
This is one of those questions that I have a hard time with because there’s no good answer. It’s like having someone ask me “why do you sleep on the right side of the bed?” I don’t know. I just do, because I’m me. Amberlough is Amberlough because of where it is, how it is. It’s made by the characters and plot but also by the footlights and the fashion and the drip of water from an absinthe fountain.
I did an interview with Geeks Guide to the Galaxy a few weeks ago where we talked about cities in sci-fi and fantasy. The interviewer asked me why I had chosen to set Amberlough in an invented city instead of an alternate Paris or Berlin, and my answer was that the city grew up around the story—that the story asked for a certain mood and atmosphere.
Why are we still so enamoured with art deco? Speaking purely for myself, the deco era feels like a final gasp of a particular kind of elegance that evaporated after World War II. But probably there were people in the 30s who felt the same way about La Belle Epoch and the Edwardians: that elegance had been wholly snuffed by World War One. Maybe we all just want to escape from our now.
You have a gay protagonist in your series. How important was it to include that representation? What were some of the pitfalls and cliches you most wanted to avoid?
It’s important to me to portray queer characters as fully-rounded human beings with flaws, desires, hopes, and dreams. People who make irrational decisions based on emotion, as well as intelligent decisions based on cold hard facts. I especially want Aristide to be high femme as well as a ruthless, brutal, calculating criminal, and to be great at both of these things without being a caricature of either. He makes mistakes. He has strong feelings and deals with them poorly, like most of the characters in the series. Like most people, honestly.
The most obvious trope, when it comes to queer characters, is the Unhappy Queer Ending. Sorry, didn’t sidestep that one in Amberlough. But you asked earlier about espionage tropes and queer or not, bad spies meet bad ends. If you’ve read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you know that. And honestly, I think an Unhappy Queer Ending can be all right if it’s actually just an Unhappy Ending. If it’s the result of human error, characters’ fatal flaws, the engines of narrative that move toward tragedy, rather than a case of “too gay for this world, had to die,” or “I need my straight characters to feel grief, what to do?”
An unhappy ending was the only ending available to queer characters for a long time—E.M. Forster’s Maurice could only be published posthumously because of its relatively happy ending. There’s been a dearth of happy queer endings and a surfeit of tragedy, so tragedy fatigue is totally understandable. But what I’d really like to see is queer characters populating the full spectrum of narratives offered by the human experience.
What can writers do to bring more diversity to their narratives? What kinds of diverse stories are we still missing out on/you really want to read?
I’ll repeat this like a broken record every time someone asks me this question. When you’re writing a story, keep asking yourself “why?” Why did you choose to make a character white, straight, male, cis, able-bodied, neurotypical, etcetera, etcetera? There are any number of characters in the Dossier—from POVs to the people driving the cabs—who started out white men and ended up something else because I asked myself why that was my default, and whether or not I could make a different choice. The answer was almost always yes, and the story usually improved because of it. Change the spymaster from a white man to the daughter of brown-skinned asylum seekers and you’ve added depth to her character, depth to your worldbuilding, and an extra several layers of conflict to her interactions with the people around her.
I feel privileged to be reading a lot of really diverse fiction now, but I think that’s because I’m in the writing community loop. What I want is a mainstreaming of narratives about queer people and people of color. I don’t want them to be “niche” anymore, or something we praise in the small circle of writers reading other writers’ work. Black Panther is an amazing example of what I’m talking about. Let’s do more of that: put money behind marginalized narratives. Unmarginalize them. Market them to everyone, not just their “target audience.” Give me the gay Avengers, and not just on Ao3.
Why should we be reading The Amberlough Dossier?
Hot sex and sneaky schemes. High society and lowbrow humor. Absolutely all the feels. What more do you want from your fiction? Seriously, tell me. I’ll put it in book three.
Lara Elena Donnelly is the author of the vintage-glam spy thriller Amberlough and it’s forthcoming sequels Armistice and Amnesty (Tor). Lara’s other work has appeared in venues including Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Nightmare, and Uncanny. Swing by the bibliography page for links!
A graduate of the Clarion and Alpha writers’ workshops, Lara has also served as on-site staff at the latter, mentoring amazing teens who will someday take over the world of SFF.