fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsHa’Penny by Jo Walton historical fantasy book reviewsHa’Penny by Jo Walton

(May contain spoilers for the previous book, Farthing.)

Ha’Penny is the second book in Jo Walton’s dark alternate history series SMALL CHANGE. The “small change” that created this world is the refusal of America to get involved in the war in Europe, in 1941. From that small “counterfactual” sprang a world where, by 1949, Europe is largely under the control of Hitler, who is at war with Stalin for the rest. Britain negotiated a “peace with honor” with Germany and has now fully embraced fascism. Many Brits know about the death camps in Europe, but they don’t care. Jews in Britain have their freedoms and rights limited daily, and the newspapers and radios screech about terror attacks from Jews or Bolsheviks.

Like Farthing, Ha’Penny alternates narration between two characters. Peter Carmichael is a Scotland Yard inspector investigating the bombing death of the actress Lauria Gilmore. Viola Larkin, whose stage name is Vi Lark, is the daughter of a peer. Like the character of Lucy Kahn in Farthing, Vi rebelled against the aristocratic life and took a career on the stage. While Carmichael discovers that Lauria died from a home-made bomb she appeared to be assembling, along with a male companion who hasn’t been identified, Vi is contacted by her sister Cresssida, (Siddy), a dedicated Stalin-flavored communist. Soon Vi is coerced into a plot to kill Hitler when he comes to England for a state visit.

The use of first-person point of view for Vi did remind me a little bit of Lucy from the first book, but Vi is a very different person. At first she seems shallow because she is only interested in the theater, but as we hear about her lives and the lives of her sisters, we see that the stage is a refuge for her. The Larkin family is aristocratic and part of the “Farthing Set” from Farthing, if only indirectly. One daughter married a nuclear scientist; one was killed during the war; one is a communist; one married Heinrich Himmler. As with Farthing, we see that the aristocrats brokered a peace with Hitler to protect their own lifestyles, and care nothing for the pain and injustice they are causing.

Carmichael, a good detective who was blackmailed into silence in Farthing when he discovered the truth about the murder, is deeply dissatisfied and feels trapped. The mystery part of Ha’Penny is not as good as the first book. A couple of clues drop easily into Carmichael’s lap, and his intuitive leap at the end is not well supported, but that didn’t ruin the suspense. Walton creates such a believable world with plausible characters that I found myself emotionally confused; I wanted Carmichael to succeed because he is a good man trapped in a terrible situation, and a good detective — but Vi is trying to kill Hitler, so I wanted her to succeed, too.

Vi was a less successful character for me in a few ways. I found her sexual masochism off-putting (when the handsome Irish mercenary tells her that he’ll kill her if she tries to leave the conspiracy, Vi is immediately aroused), but she is smart, and her conflict to some extent mirrors the conflict any moral person might have in the situation. What makes Vi interesting is her involvement in the theater. Walton did a lot of research into popular plays of the era, but more than that, this book captures perfectly the world of the theater, so well that I periodically forgot that this wasn’t taking place in my world. In the midst of a tense political thriller, I laughed out loud a couple of times during the rehearsal and costuming scenes.

Carmichael’s relationship with his former batman Jack, the love that threatens his career and his freedom, is also well depicted here. These are not two people who spend pages discussing current events for the benefit of the reader. They have a realistic relationship. Jack, who is stuck at home, wishes they would go out to the cinema or to dinner, while Carmichael, who has worked all day, just wants to put his feet up and have a drink. The deeper level to this very familiar spat is the fact that being seen together in public doing something as innocuous as holding hands could land them both in prison.

Ha’Penny is a dark book. If Farthing showed us the “Farthing Set,” a group of powerful politicians coldly planning to strip all rights and freedoms from their citizens, Ha’Penny shows us the success of that plan: the everyday fear and bigotry in a country where family members and neighbors inform on each other to the police. There are a few things I don’t know about this world; literally, I don’t know what happened in Japan, since apparently there was no attack on Pearl Harbor. This doesn’t play into the books, but it would be nice to know.

Walton also takes it easy on herself in some ways. The villains are easy to hate. The only good and likeable person who mouths the slogans of the villains with some sincerity is Carmichael’s sergeant Royston, and even he doesn’t believe all of it. Mark Normanby, the Prime Minister, is a sneering, sadistic hypocrite with no complexity, and by this book he has become a stereotype. Of course, the world and the philosophical questions are complex enough, but I would like to see what would have persuaded a good person to go along with these policies.

What makes this book stand out is the life and dynamism of the theater world and the precision of detail in daily life; whether it’s a description of a car or a scene where, before the night she is planning to help kill Hitler, Vi and her friends go out for ice cream.

Walton creates a world where fear is used to control the populace, where rights and freedoms are eroded away daily in order to provide “safety;” where people quickly grow callous to the suffering of government-designated “Others.” Vi succeeds in this world because she is in a privileged class. She does see the truth at the end, but can’t do anything about it. Carmichael sees the truth but believes he has sold his soul. He continues to be a good policeman because that is what he has left to hold onto. Both Vi and Carmichael want to make a difference in their world, but it is hard to see how they can. The mudslide of political manipulation is too heavy, too thick and coming much too quickly.

At the end of the book, Carmichael makes himself a promise. Against the dark, convincing backdrop of this book, it’s a promise I fear he can’t keep.

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.

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