Lara Elena Donnelly on Writing the Amberlough Dossier Series
Photo: Debra Wilburn

Photo: Debra Wilburn


Set nearly a decade after Amberlough, after Cyril DePaul tipped over the first domino that led to the rise of a brutal fascist government—and five years since Armistice, since violent resistance to that government began in earnest—Amnesty, the conclusion to Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough Dossier, answers an often-ignored question: What happens once the revolution is over?

For Gedda, the fictional country that serves as a backdrop for much of Donnelly’s trilogy, the days of train track bombings and assassinations are over, but not forgotten. Its citizens, still angry and thirsting for justice—or at least revenge—must find a way to sweep away the rubble and rebuild their country from the ruins that remain.

A tall order for the characters… and for the author behind them.

But long before the restructuring of Gedda in Amnesty, before the violent revolution of Armistice, and even before the fascist takeover in Amberlough, Donnelly faced an even taller order: building the world of her series from scratch.

The first inspiration for the Amberlough Dossier came to Donnelly while on a drive through the Sheffrey Pass in Ireland. She imagined a character—Aristide Makricosta, who clearly didn’t belong in such a rural place—waiting for someone on a hillside. Although she wasn’t sure who he was waiting for or what had driven him to a place so at odds with his glamorous persona, she decided to find out.

Inspired by Cabaret, which she had seen several years before and which had stuck around in her subconscious, Donnelly began to understand the kind of person Aristide was. With that understanding, she worked backward. “When I started thinking about what the crisis was that caused these characters to go on the run, to exile themselves,” Donnelly said, “I knew Aristide’s character well enough that I could extrapolate that this terrible thing probably had a lot to do with exactly who he was. What came out of that thought process was, ‘Well, yeah, a fascist takeover would be pretty bad for him.’”

Still, there was a long way to go before Donnelly’s original idea could become what award-winning speculative fiction author Robert Jackson Bennett called “a tumultuous, ravishing world.” When describing the initial draft of the short story that turned into Amberlough, Donnelly explained, “It had a very milquetoast dystopian government. You know, it was a bad government doing bad stuff. A lot of the process of worldbuilding was figuring out exactly what the sociopolitical landscape was like, what would allow for the kind of fascist ‘revolution’ I imagined occurring and then building in both directions—understanding what it looks like after the revolution and what it looked like before the revolution and building both of those worlds.”

Amberlough TP.jpg

From there, Donnelly built Amberlough’s world—the decadence of Amberlough City, the bleakness of the Currin Pass, the far-off destruction in the disputed territory between Tatié and Tzieta—and the characters who inhabited it. That one vague scene of a man on a hillside gave birth to a backstory of interwoven lives and tangled lies, of closely-kept secrets and half-truths and messy emotions. 

And, originally, Donnelly felt that the scene she’d envisioned was the perfect tragic ending to the story. “I envisioned Amberlough as a standalone, and I envisioned it as a standalone until, in edits, we changed the ending. I always intended it as a tragedy, and not a clean tragedy, but one that made everyone kind of uncomfortable, so I was reluctant about the change. By changing the ending of the first book, it felt less like a tragedy, but then I realized that it opened up this opportunity to make this tragedy even messier over the course of three books.”

In fact, Donnelly knew exactly what she wanted the third book to be: “I wanted it to be a legal thriller where this character who would have died in Amberlough was put on trial for his crimes. This character, who we knew did bad things but who we loved anyway, would have all of the bad things that he did drug out into the spotlight, and the readers and all of the other characters would be forced to confront those things.”

But, once again, Donnelly found herself with an ending—and no idea how her characters got there. “I had grand visions for writing a legal thriller, but the unfortunate truth was that I had to write the second book before I could ever get there. I had to write an entire book in order to get to my vision of writing this third book.”


After she figured out that second book, Armistice, then came Amnesty. “Once I got to book three,” Donnelly said, “I was like, ‘Great! I know exactly what happens in this book!’” Just like the often-counterproductive schemes of the Dossier’s cast of characters, however, it wasn’t that simple. “It turned out that I had no idea what happened in that book. It didn’t end up being a legal thriller at all. If it kept anything from my initial vision, it’s the confrontation of past deeds and having to face up to the consequences of your actions, but it isn’t just for that one character. It takes place after the overthrow of the fascist government, in the rubble of what’s left, and people are just trying to sift through what happened to them and salvage whatever is left there in the mess. It kept the initial idea of what I wanted it to be… but everything about it is different.”

Donnelly’s twisting and turning process of writing the Amberlough Dossier is a perfect example of the way ideas morph and grow, the way stories lead writers in directions they never could have initially imagined—fitting for the author of a series about ideas that spark revolutions and decisions that lead characters to every kind of place imaginable.


Although Amnesty just hit bookstore shelves in April, Donnelly’s not slowing down: “I’ve been working on a contemporary thriller that is nebulously fantasy but possibly horror. It’s a genre-hopping book, but I think it’s tonally consistent with the Amberlough Dossier. It’s different in a lot of ways, but I think the prose, the imagery, and the sort of sensuality of it are going to be very appealing to people who enjoyed these books.”

Find Lara Elena Donnelly online at and on Twitter @larazontally.

Professional editor and proofreader. Lover of all things SF/F. Avid supporter of other women.