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The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Amber Shadows
The Amber Shadows
by Lucy Ribchester

Hardcover (8 Aug 2017), 464 pages.
Publisher: Pegasus Books
ISBN-13: 9781681774480

During the dangerous days of World War II, Honey Deschamps is spending her days transcribing decrypted messages at Bletchley Park, when she starts to receive bizarrely coded packages. When everyone is keeping secrets, who can you trust?

Bletchley Park, 1942: As World War II rages on, Honey Deschamps sits at her type-x machine, tediously transcribing decrypted signals from the German Army, doing her part to assist the British war effort. Halfway across the world, Hitler's armies are marching into Leningrad, leaving a trail of destruction and pillaging the country's most treasured artworks, including the famous Amber Room - the eighth wonder of the world.

As reports begin filtering into Bletchley Park about the stolen loot, Honey receives a mysterious package, hand-delivered from a man that she has never seen before who claims that he works at the Park as well. The package is postmarked from Russia, and inside is a small piece of amber. It is just the first of several such packages, and when she examines them together she realizes that someone, relying on her abilities to unravel codes, is trying to tell her something.

Honey can't help but fear that the packages are a trap set by the authorities to test her loyalties - surely nothing so valuable could get through the mail during a time of war. And yet, something about the packages reminds her of stories that her brother used to tell her about her absent father, and when her brother is found brutally murdered on his way to visit Honey, she can't help but assume that the events are connected. But at Bletchley Park, secrecy reigns supreme, and she has nowhere to turn for help…

The Amber Shadows

"Damned engines. The way they shudder when they're pulling to a halt. Sets one's teeth on edge." The man in the navy blue suit moves his hands down the serge on his thighs, pulling at the rouser creases. Though it is cold in the carriage, and they are the only two in this compartment, it is also airless. Horsehair stuffing pokes through cracks in the leather seats, making his legs itch. When his trousers are straight he fluffs the collar of his shirt.

Outside the train window the light is starting to fade. A tiny slash of fire signals the end of the sun; the rest of the sky is uniform navy. Where are they? Kent? Have they been rerouted? Have they left Buckinghamshire yet? They must be hours still from London, the fields are too pretty, the air is still too full of pollen.

Opposite him, the other man in the carriage stirs. His suit is cream linen, his hair blond; his voice when he speaks comes out slow and lazy. "You know Stravinsky spent months, perhaps years of his childhood on trains. They say it influenced his music. The rhythms."

There is a pause of seconds. The man in navy pouts his lips; he wants to think of something to say to this, he wants to reply, but he doesn't know if the other wants a reply. Then fate presents him with a new outlet.

"You've dropped your book." He reaches to the floor.

"How clumsy of me." The blond sticks out his hand. "Thank you."

"Figley's Book of Ciphers. Ha. Not planning on fighting Fritz with that, are you?"

"Gracious, no." The blond man laughs. "Gift from my father when I was a boy. I always take it on train journeys. Flick through it every now and then. Passes the time."

"I see. Family bringing you to these parts?"

"As a matter of fact, yes. Relative of mine working at some godawful Foreign Office outpost in the middle of nowhere. A manor house full of bored typists. I can't imagine anything more torturous. You?"

"I…work in Bletchley village. It's small, sort of…"

"Yes, I know the one. That's where she works. Funny. Small world, isn't it? Are you from there?"

"No. London."


Silence folds back in. the blond man closes his eyes. When he opens them again, just a peep, the man in navy looks sharply down and fidgets with the things in his pockets. "Suppose," he says, still fidgeting, "suppose we're going…to be here all night. Night in the sidings. Mother's roast'll go to ruin. If there was only some way of telegramming while on the train. Suppose…at this rate… Do you know this happened last time I took the train? Got re-railed and ended up in Maidstone. What do you suppose causes these wretched delays?"

The blond shrugs. "War." He wishes this navy-suited woolen agitator would shut up. He is putting him off his daydreams and they are good daydreams. They are dance drams. In his head, he is not in linen but silk stockings—thick, defiant, bully-for-you rationing—and a taupe velvet doublet with slashes of tawny silk. He is doing fouettés, foot cocked nice and tight on thigh, spin, one, two…seven, he is Basil from Don Quixote—no, he is Stravinsky's Prince Ivan—and the orchestra is blisteringly loud.

But the man in navy must talk. Strangers must talk to other strangers, when they meet like this, on trains in the middle of a war. "Stravinsky, you say…" the navy man gabbles. "Now there's a funny thing. I haven't heard his music in a long time, but you know, you remind me of someone I once knew. I'd only have been a boy myself. But he liked Stravinsky too. He was a ballet boy."

Now the blond looks up, takes in the other's face: the gristly cheeks, the eyes blue, sunken back and a little darting. Does he know this man? He tries to remember who got in the carriage first. Had he been there already? But no, perhaps they got on at the same time. "I don't think so, old chap. Don't recognize you."

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Amber Shadows by Lucy Ribchester, published by Pegasus Books. Reprinted with permission. All other rights reserved.

A brilliant novel of lies and intrigue at Bletchley Park by the author of the bestselling debut The Hourglass Factory.

Print Article

The Amber Shadows sweeps readers into the realm of World War II-era Britain where Honor "Honey" Deschamps, aged 24, has been posted to top-secret Bletchley Park where she works as a typist with a team of codebreakers. Most of Honey's colleagues are hiding personal secrets, as they work with life-and-death intensity during wartime. After a charismatic stranger, Felix, delivers a mysterious parcel to Honey, this fast-paced mystery spins through many twists and turns.

In late 1942, when this novel takes place, stakes have never been higher in Europe. Air raids happen with daily intensity. German U-boats dominate the Atlantic, interrupting allied supply lines. These U-boats communicate using ciphers, which the allies haven't been able to crack. Much depends on the secret cadre of cryptanalysts and Hut 6 Typex operators like Honey who decipher wireless messages intercepted by allied spies. Life at Bletchley happens in deepest secrecy. If the Nazis learn that the allies can read their ciphers, they will change their encryption system again.

Suspense is built into The Amber Shadows around one of the world's most legendary unsolved mysteries: During the 1941 German invasion of Russia, the original Amber Room disappeared from St. Catherine's Palace in Leningrad and, to this day, has never been found. There are rumors that the Nazis disassembled and then stole the "eighth wonder of the world", while others say bombing raids destroyed it. Either way, Ribchester deploys Honey into the heart of this true-history mystery. While walking home alone from the cinema, she bumps into Felix and is immediately attracted to him. When Felix delivers a parcel addressed to her with Cyrillic script and postmarked Leningrad, she is intrigued. A piece of carved amber wrapped inside compels Honey to quest for answers about the Amber Room. And because stories told by Honey's elder brother Whitington – Dickie – cast their father as a musician who returned to his native Russia during Honey's infancy, the parcel also makes her begin to investigate her long-lost birth father. Soon she receives more mysterious pieces of amber and notices an evolving code in them.

Could her father be sending messages via shards of amber? Or is he attempting a family reunion or perhaps something more vital to the war effort? Concealing secrets and communications with foreigners (or even having a foreign surname) are matters of suspicion, possible treason. Yet Honey's desire to know the truth about her father and her family's ambiguous past motivates her to risk everything to chase after clues. No spoilers here: Honey discovers more (and less) than she'd imagined when she finally deciphers the secrets of her amber.

Yet, in The Amber Shadows not all danger is caused by foreign enemies and possible treason. Nightly blackouts and winter weather lend a shadowy, noir tone to the book, emphasized by round-the-clock, mentally stressful shift work at Bletchley. In a riveting subplot, Honey's close friend Moira is sent away. It's not certain whether it's due to mental breakdown, or because she blows the whistle on a rumored gender wage gap, or as retribution for Moira's ill-fated affair with a married American pilot.

The Amber Shadows explores women's expanding social roles during WWII. The Bletchley Park women live within an isolated, secret sisterhood (See Beyond the Book). They share romantic woes, improvise makeup and fashion fixes born of wartime scarcity, and fortify each other in pursuit of victory over the ever-advancing German forces. Flirtations with cryptanalysts and dance parties with Yankee fly-boys enhance the narrative tension: "The Military Policeman held his hand out for her card. In the spillage of light from his torch, she became aware of footsteps coming and going all around them, soft as insects in the night's foliage. They had stumbled into the ecosystem of the Bletchley midnight changeover and there were no places to hide, no places to kiss."

One of the shortfalls in the novel is that Dickie never appears center-stage; instead the sibling bond is revealed via flashbacks. This might have been better rendered in real-time scenes with Honey, rather than confined to a confusing prologue. Dickie's motivations are never fully explored; he is called a conscientious objector and that would have been fascinating to read more about. Still, Ribchester has won literary prizes including a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award, and it is clear why. Compelling historical details vibrate through each chapter, and her prose shimmers with nuances unique to Britain and that era: "The seafront had been sandbagged. Battlements, coloured slush by the tide, sagged in piles, some crusted over with seaweed in tiny ragged lines. As the truck rounded a bend in the road the fragile white stucco of the seafront houses came into view, like brittle icing on a wedding cake; a cake that couldn't exist any more now rationing had put paid to sugar."

Those who worked at Bletchley Park were sworn to secrecy for decades after the end of the war, which allows Ribchester some creative latitude – that said, she braids a compelling mystery with historically accurate details. I'd love to read a sequel to The Amber Shadows featuring further adventures of Honey and Moira. When the novel ends, the war is far from over.

Reviewed by Karen Lewis

Historical Novels Review
Suspense, mystery, and intrigue are high in this novel. Ribchester easily transports readers to the past, cleverly hiding clues throughout bits of the story, and creating quite a number of twists and turns throughout...Readers will be kept guessing, and the ending is a surprise. Recommended.

New York Journal of Books
While the mystery itself is compelling, the novel’s most intriguing elements come from depictions of life in England during wartime blackouts and rationing. [Ribchester] builds a realistic setting that makes Honey’s situation informative and believable.

Both a quirky satire of WWII spy fiction and a complex, suspenseful story filled with unusual details portraying women’s lives during the war.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Ribchester movingly reflects on trust, illusion, and the stories that connect us to our pasts.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. [Ribchester] convincingly re-creates wartime life and the enclosed world of code-breaking and plays out the suspense in a Hitchcock homage almost worthy of the master.

Library Journal
This sophomore effort by the author of The Hourglass Factory is a fascinating historical mystery that explores issues of secrecy, trust, and families but never impedes the element of almost Hitchcockian suspense.

Print Article

Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park MansionBletchley Park, the setting for Lucy Ribchester's The Amber Shadows, is situated about an hour's train ride north of London. The estate has been turned into a heritage museum open to the public since 1993.

Bletchley was originally a manor house on about 500 acres with rural outbuildings, but by the 1930s had fallen into disuse. The Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, scouted the estate as being a safe distance from London, yet on a direct train line for those in the know to be able to come and go. Here, the British "Government Code and Cipher School" staffed up in relative secrecy. Personnel numbered in the thousands during the war, of which about 75% were women. Enemy messages were intercepted on wireless then decrypted and translated at Bletchley. The information was then disseminated on a "need to know" basis to strategic commanders. Security was top priority, and people assigned to work at one of the temporary "huts" were discouraged from interacting with those from other units. Personnel were forbidden to discuss anything connected with the site or their jobs with outsiders, and incoming personal mail was directed to an anonymous post box in London. All of these details are portrayed with vivid accuracy in Ribchester's novel.

Codebreakers at WorkFor decades after the end of World War II, the actual crypto-technology, as well as Bletchley itself – which went by the code name: "Station X" – remained top-secret. Bletchley Park is now known as home to mathematician Alan Turing's groundbreaking team that cracked the Enigma cipher, shortened the war, and blazed a trail for today's computer industry. With its self-contained setting (complete with dining huts, park-like grounds, and convergence of bright minds), it foretold the tech-campus ambience and teamwork evident in many contemporary Silicon Valley companies.

First ComputersBletchley Park's grounds and buildings are open to visitors. In The Amber Shadows, Honey and her friends devote long hours working Typex machines. These are on exhibit in the museum along with other artifacts like uniforms and personal effects. Enigma machines, vintage telecom/radio equipment, and a replica of the clattering "bombe" machine are also displayed. Visitors keen on computing and codes can learn more at the National Museum of Computing, housed at the site and open by separate admission. The Bletchley Park Trust leases office space to tech startup enterprises and sponsors many educational opportunities. In these ways, Bletchley Park Trust is building bridges from the past to the future, ensuring preservation of a fascinating chapter of history.

Alan Turing's HutSome areas of Bletchley Park remain on restricted access, due to active building restoration work, but some secrets still hide in the shadows: At least one unsolved mystery received much publicity in 2012 when a coded message attached to a carrier pigeon's skeleton was found nearby. The code has not yet been cracked, apparently because the original cipher book had been destroyed to maintain secrecy.

Bletchley Park
Code breakers at work, courtesy of
A Mark 2 Colossus computer. The ten Colossi were the world's first (semi-) programmable electronic computers, the first having been built in 1943.
Hut 8, where Alan Turing worked, courtesy of

By Karen Lewis

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