A tightly woven and diverse cast of spies, criminals, cabaret bohemians, and lovers struggles to save what matters to each of them against a tide of rising fascism and violence in Donnelly's debut novel, set in a vaguely 1920s milieu.
Amberlough City is a place both tolerant and decadent, where the police commissioner herself might watch a transgressive striptease at the city's most fashionable cabaret and where an intelligence officer might relax from classified telegrams via an affair with a flamboyant Casanova. One such officer is Cyril DePaul, who's sworn off fieldwork after a near-death experience left him terrified of torture and doubting his abilities. His Casanova is Aristide Makricosta: a man with as many contingency plans as lovers, the darling of Amberlough as a popular cabaret emcee...and also a smuggler and black marketeer. But when Cyril's reluctant return to fieldwork goes wrong, he is blackmailed (on somewhat shaky narrative logic) into becoming a double agent for the conservative, fascist One State Party that threatens Amberlough's freedoms. As Cyril and Aristide execute a wary dance of lies and good intentions around each other, a cabaret dancer named Cordelia Lehane becomes involved—first to provide Cyril with a cover, but soon she’s running drugs and secret messages for Aristide's underground contacts. As the OSP gains power—thanks to Cyril's own machinations—Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia each fight to save those they care about and, ultimately, to survive themselves. Cyril wrestles with his cowardice, guilt, and the true depth of his feelings for Aristide as Amberlough is changed forever.
A sense of inevitable loss and futility permeates this rich drama. The fascists may never be defeated but only escaped—if the characters are willing to abandon the people they love. That dilemma will haunt them, as it haunts the reader.