Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are seven nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 19, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.
I am inclined to begin this pitch with the characters you’ll meet in Amberlough, Lara Elena Donnelly’s chilling, precise not-exactly-fantasy fantasy debut: Cyril, an intelligence agent (or spy, if you will) tasked with investigating smuggling who is leveraged in so many ways; his lover Aristide, a high-class stripper, and also (unfortunately for Cyril) a smuggling kingpin; Aristide’s fellow nightclub performer Cordelia, entangled in drug-running, and also in several affairs more mercenary than romantic.
Yes, The characters are a good place to start talking about this book, because they are all beautifully, keenly compromised, every one of them deep in a hustle that offers dire consequences for failure, and only ambiguous rewards. But the real main character is Amberlough itself: a lux, kaleidoscoping city where half of the glitter is flop sweat, dancing hard in the stage lights as the darkness closes in.
Amberlough has all the torrid theatricality of the Weimar Republic, where gangster’s molls and compromised agents play footsie with annihilation. It’s a beautiful, fascinating place, but when the lights come up, someone is going to have to pay the bill. The rising fascist group threatening to take power are the Ospies—the One State Party—who are in ascendency in a neighboring state, and have set their withering sights on Amberlough. Cyril can see them coming, and must make escalating choices to protect the people he loves, even while he sinks deeper into the seedy underworld. Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia end up working against and for one another, desperately trying to stay above the rising tide of fascism.
Why it will win:
Amberlough is a lush, evocative novel, with beautifully complicated characters who exist in a richly described place. That’s enough to get a vote from fellow writers. But I also think Amberlough is timely in its Weimar analogies, given the rise of far-right governments all over the world, and especially in places that have experienced the horrors of genocide firsthand. Just this week, Victor Orban swept into a fourth term as prime minister of Hungary, on a platform of deep anti-immigrant hatred. Putin won another term in Russia in a joke of an election. As they say, we live in interesting times.
Last year’s Nebula winner, Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky, mixed in tremulous hope to an apocalyptic vision I thought characterized 2016 almost perfectly. 2017 was more compromised, more tired, more scared—even now, everyone feels like something bad is coming, though no one agrees what that bad is, or how to fix it. Amberlough captures that zeitgeist with both hands. It would be a really appropriate counterpoint to last year’s winner.
Why it won’t win:
The Nebula is ultimately a genre award, voted upon by something of a coalition government: both science fiction and fantasy writers cast their ballots. I’m not saying there’s a hard line between the two halves of the voting body, because there isn’t a hard line between science fiction and fantasy. That said, straight up fantasy novels tend to win Best Novel with less regularity than sci-fi. When they do—Among Others by Jo Walton, or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods—they tend to be set in contemporary eras, and incorporate confounding magic that bends our world into something strange. Nebula winners that are set in magical worlds—Ursula Le Guin’s Powers or Naomi Novik’s Uprooted—are often by well-established writers, and this one is of course a debut, albeit an enormously accomplished one (obviously). Nebula voters seem amenable to first time novels in the science fictional vein, like Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie or William Gibson’s Neuromancer; I can’t find a corresponding fantasy debut that has taken home the prize.
And then there’s this: while Amberlough is nominally a fantasy novel, it is not set on a magical world, but more an alternate one, and in fact, it feels often quite un-fantastical, which I think weakens its chances—though there is precedent here too, in the win for Michael Chabon’s alt-history The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (though that one is set on our Earth, and Chabon is Chabon, and was even in 2007).
While in many ways Amberlough would be a very timely novel to win an award for the bizarre span of months that was 2017, it ultimately feels more beholden to the spy novel than the SFF novel, which makes me think it’s a long shot to win. Boy, but it’s right on the money though.