fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsHalf a Crown by Jo Walton historical fantasy book reviewsHalf a Crown by Jo Walton

(Warning: may contain spoilers of the two previous books.)

In the foreword to Half a Crown, Jo Walton says that she is by nature an optimistic person and that’s why she wrote the SMALL CHANGE series (which she refers to as Still Life with Fascists). Half a Crown, the final book in the trilogy, is admittedly more optimistic that the first two. Sadly, in several ways it’s the weakest of the three, although still worth reading.

The final book is set in 1960, more than ten years into the repressive fascist regime of Prime Minister Mark Normanby. Peter Carmichael is now the head of the Watch, Britain’s Gestapo. Within the Watch, Carmichael and his lieutenant Jacobson, the agency’s “model Jew,” run the clandestine Inner Watch, an underground railroad that sends Jews and other people deemed “undesirables” to freedom instead of shipping them back to the European Continent and Hitler’s death camps.

Hitler’s war with Stalin has ended and Russia no longer exists as a nation. A group of national leaders is meeting in London for a “peace conference;” the unspoken purpose is to divide up the rest of the world as spoils among these world powers. A new player suddenly demands entry into the conference – the Duke of Windsor, King Edward the Eighth has suddenly decided he wants to be a player though he previously abdicated the throne. Carmichael and Normanby both believe that Edward is behind a sudden surge in the British Power movement, a violent group who believes Normanby’s government is “too soft.”

On the personal front, Elvira Royston, who became Carmichael’s ward after her father, who was his sergeant, was killed, is eighteen, and about to be brought out as a debutante. She will even be presented to the young Queen Elizabeth. Her life is filled with dress fittings, rehearsals, balls and concerns about the right jewelry. She is coming out with her best friend Betsy Maynard. Mrs. Maynard is responsible for this process, which creates difficulties because Mrs. Maynard doesn’t like Elvira and sees her as a rival for her own daughter’s prospects. As with the other books, the chapters alternate POV. Elvira is a young voice for a book like this. Early in the book she comes across as self-centered and generally uncaring. When she is invited to an “Ironsides” rally (a fascist demonstration) she says she thinks it will be “fun,” even though Jewish citizens are rounded up and forced to march while they are pelted with rotten vegetables and wet sponges as part of the festivities. Elvira has two qualities that save her from being unlikeable: she is brave and she is unswervingly loyal.

Elvira’s parts of the book, which descend into a nightmarish sense of powerlessness very shortly, are good.  The growth of this character, who is barely an adult in a world she really doesn’t understand, kept me reading. One difficulty, though, was that I never understood the nature of the emotional connection between Elvira and “Uncle Carmichael,” as she calls him. Carmichael made sure Elvira wanted for nothing, but she was a very small part of his life. He sent her off to boarding school as soon as possible, and the clothes in her room at his flat are several sizes too small, since she has grown since he sent her to Switzerland to be “finished.” It seems like they almost never talk, and later in the book, when Carmichael asks her why she thinks he sent her to Switzerland, she has no idea. (I think it’s because Switzerland remained free and neutral, but I don’t really know that either.) It seems that Carmichael loves her, but doesn’t trust her; at first it seems that Elvira appreciates Carmichael, but doesn’t love him.

Amid the social unrest, Elvira overhears something that puts Carmichael’s patriotism into question. This makes Elvira a pawn for Carmichael’s political enemies. Normanby was a stereotypical villain in the second book and has almost collapsed into parody here. He looks like “a spider” in his wheelchair and keeps a dog named Fang as his body-guard. Instead of backing Carmichael at a moment of crisis, which would bind Carmichael more tightly to him, Normanby encourages the Watch’s rivals to provoke Carmichael. This kind of self-indulgent display might work for an Evil Overlord, but shows Normanby up as both evil and incompetent. It might even be accurate, but it weakens the drama instead of strengthening it.

The heart of this book really should be Carmichael, who, as the “visual face of British repression” and as a closeted gay man has been deeply torn, nearly tortured, throughout this series. At one point, Carmichael is informed that Elvira is being taken to a notorious interrogation center. Carmichael himself wrote the protocols for the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that are used there. The techniques can be used on anyone, Carmichael reflects, and they are going to be used on Elvira. Moments like this one, with Carmichael, who has tried to be a good man, is forced to taste the fruit of his own compromises, are good. Elvira’s voice, perhaps because it’s first person, or perhaps because Walton unerringly captures a mix of worldliness and innocence, is stronger, though, almost drowning out some of Carmichael’s insights.

It seems like the British people have finally had enough when Normanby’s government announces a “work camp” on British soil at Gravesend. I’m not exactly sure why this would become a sticking point. Major plot points, including the death of an important secondary character, happen off-stage, and the final resolution seems too easy. Having loaded the front half of the book up with dark elements, Walton pushed through a happy ending that wasn’t quite earned by the characters.

As a study of how governments become dictatorships, and as a political thriller, Half a Crown still works. Carmichael and Elvira complement one another; one as the sheltered innocent who becomes aware of the world, one who knows much too much about evil and has finally said, “Enough.” The book is a little disappointing, but like the others, it is full of thought-provoking questions and is well worth your time.

Small Change — (2006-2008) Publisher:One summer weekend in 1949 — but not our 1949 — the well-connected “Farthing set”, a group of upper-crust English families, enjoy a country retreat. Lucy is a minor daughter in one of those families; her parents were both leading figures in the group that overthrew Churchill and negotiated peace with Herr Hitler eight years before. Despite her parents’ evident disapproval, Lucy is married — happily — to a London Jew. It was therefore quite a surprise to Lucy when she and her husband David found themselves invited to the retreat. It’s even more startling when, on the retreat’s first night, a major politician of the Farthing set is found gruesomely murdered, with abundant signs that the killing was ritualistic. It quickly becomes clear to Lucy that she and David were brought to the retreat in order to pin the murder on him. Major political machinations are at stake, including an initiative in Parliament, supported by the Farthing set, to limit the right to vote to university graduates. But whoever’s behind the murder, and the frame-up, didn’t reckon on the principal investigator from Scotland Yard being a man with very private reasons for sympathizing with outcasts… and looking beyond the obvious. As the trap slowly shuts on Lucy and David, they begin to see a way out — a way fraught with peril in a darkening world.

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  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.