December 30th, 2009

Stone & Sky

Ha'penny, by Jo Walton

Author: Jo Walton
Series: Small Change #2
Publisher: Tor
Format: Hardcover
Year: 2007
Pages: 319
Genre: Alternative History/Thriller

Jacket Description
In 1949, eight years after the "Peace with Honor" was negotiated between Great Britain and Nazi Germany by the Farthing Set, England has completed its slide into fascist dictatorship. When the vile Mark Normanby takes advantage of a political murder in order to arrange his election as prime minister, and promptly enacts draconian security measures, the last hope of democracy seems extinguished.

Then a bomb explodes in a London suburb. The brilliant but politically compromised Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard is assigned the case. What he finds leads him to a conspiracy of peers and communists, of staunch king-and-country patriots and hardened IRA gunmen, to murder Normanby and his new ally, Adolf Hitler.

Against a background of increasing domestic espionage and the suppression of Jews and homosexuals, a band of idealists and conservatives blackmail the person they need to complete their plot, an actress who holds the key to the Fuhrer's death. From the ha'penny seats in the theater to the ha'pennies that cover dead men's eyes, the conspiracy and the investigation swirl around one another.

In this brilliant sequel to Farthing, Welsh-born World Fantasy Award winner Jo Walton continues her alternate history of an England that could have been, with a novel that uses the form of the classic thrillers of the thirties and forties to open our eyes to the world in which we live today.

My Review
I loved Farthing, the first book in this series, despite avoiding alternate history and especially anything involving Nazis and WWII like the plague. In Farthing, Jo Walton took a classic British country house mystery and used it to divert the reader from all the subtly horrifying alternate history world-building going on at the edges, then brought all the alternate history aspects to the fore in the final third like a punch to the gut. It was one of the best books I've read all year.

In this sequel, which takes place almost directly after the events in Farthing, Jo Walton uses the classic thriller novel as her starting point in continuing to explore her fascist England, and if it isn't quite as successful as Farthing was, it is still compulsively readable and raises questions that will linger long after the book is finished. It can be read as a stand-alone, but I have no idea why anyone would want to, as reading it first would spoilthe events of Farthing, and that would be a terrible shame. (Needless to say, this review will also spoil the events of Farthing, so read no further if you haven't read the first book yet!)

This book has the same structure as its predecessor, alternating chapters between a tight third-person focused on Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard and a new female first-person narrator, also a woman born to the upper classes who has rejected (and been rejected by) her traditional aristocratic family. In this novel, the female narrator is Viola Larkin, who has been estranged from her family since she chose to take up acting as a profession. Carmichael is still reeling from his decision to compromise his ideals of justice to save his comfortable life with his man, Jack, and Viola has just agreed to take on the role of Hamlet in a production that will be attended by Mark Normanby (the new Prime Minister) and Adolf Hitler, who is coming to visit England to cement ties. Within the first couple chapters, Carmichael is investigating the accidental bombing death of an actress who was also going to be in the production of Hamlet, and Viola has been forced to become a part of the new assassination plot by one of her sisters, a card-carrying Communist.

This structure works less well in Ha'penny, however, because the two protagonists are far less sympathetic here than the two protagonists were in Farthing, creating emotional distance and lessening the impact of events later in the book. Carmichael, though very much consistent with the character Walton set out in Farthing, has now fallen from grace; he does not deserve the same sympathy he received when he appeared to be the righteous detective on the trail of monsters. And while Lucy Kahn was a little person caught in a trap who had the wit to find a way to escape for herself and the man she loved, Viola has much more power in determining her own destiny and chooses to give that power away by swooning over her terrorist captor. A review I read advanced the notion that she was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, but to the best of my knowledge a person does not develop Stockholm Syndrome after a momentary fright -- and besides, Viola was strongly attracted to Connelly before he ever became her captor. No, to me Viola is just another one of those fantasy girls that gets hot and bothered when a man mistreets her, and while I have no problem with sado-masochism in principle and found it wonderfully treated in Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series, in this instance it simply rang false. (Underlining the falsity, later in the novel Viola is disgusted by Normanby's subtly sadistic treatment of his wife.)

The novel also failed a little for me because I simply have no sympathy for terrorists. I reject utterly the notion that the ends can justify the means, so I had no problem rooting for Carmichael to discover the conspiracy and put a stop to it. That sucked some of the tension out of the middle of the novel, where in Farthing the middle section ratcheted up the tension by pitting Lucy against Carmichael when both were clearly on the same side.

Still, despite those weaknesses, Walton pulled off an ending that had the power to devastate, and the fact that it raises so many questions about power (questions concerning both what the ethical assertion of power looks like and what power any individual has to change any larger system) makes this a novel that people should read and discuss. I would strongly recommend it to nearly anyone, and I will most certainly be reading the next book in the series.

  • Current Mood
    thoughtful thoughtful