Filed under: Reviews | Tags: alternate history, ha'penny, jo walton, politics, Reviews, science fiction, small change series, speculative fiction, WWII
Jo Walton‘s Small Change series started off on solid ground with Farthing, a murder mystery “with fascists” set in a very different WWII era United Kingdom, and continues in her 2008 Prometheus Award winner Ha’Penny. Walton’s writing has always had a historical bent, first evident in The King’s Name series as historically-tinged fantasy, and more so in Tooth and Claw, a Victorian novel with dragons. Writing alternate history therefore isn’t much of a stretch, and her talents in creating period mood in prose certainly shine in this series.
Picture a U.K. that made peace with Hitler’s Germany after the Blitz in 1941: this is Walton’s world, several years later with a British populace manipulated into complacency. Ha’Penny focuses on two characters: the actress Viola Lark, blackmailed into participating in a scheme to assassinate the leaders of both the Third Reich and Britain, and Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard, whose homosexuality opens the door for Britain’s leaders to blackmail him into participating in their political maneuvering. Carmicheal also played a major role in Farthing, and mostly due to his recurring presence and fascinating character development, I recommend not starting the series with Ha’Penny–as well you may miss some political subtleties.
Ha’Penny, like Farthing, hinges on the familiar both in plot and content. Plot-wise, Farthing used the murder mystery, while Ha’Penny follows more of a suspense/thriller format. While Ha’Penny doesn’t deliver a page-turning potboiler in the traditional sense, it delivers a politically-charged character driven view of what might have been that reflects on current political tensions. Walton’s use of familiar, comforting structure and setting serves as a lull to amplify the danger and contrast with more subtle political violence. The real story and Walton’s own agenda paddles along frantically beneath a calm surface.
Carmichael, reluctant though he is to aid the government, has made the choice before to acquiesce to the demands of those in power for his own safety and comfort. Viola’s first person narrative of wakening to action serves to contrast his more removed and stoic internal third person narrative. She begins the novel as an actress who must work for a living, though born into privilege and willingly removed from the political arena, who becomes strong-armed into a plot she sees no purpose in. Walton uses her role in Hamlet to mirror her character, especially in the latter half of the novel. Viola’s revelation and change in character at a society event with the leaders she plots against packs a softened, yet wounding, blow:
“What about Germany?” I asked. “That they wanted the war? But they didn’t, did they, no more than we did, that’s what the Farthing Peace was all about?”
“No, about the camps.” Lord Ullapool drained his wineglass and stared off at the dancers, but I don’t think he was seeing them. “Anything you’ve heard about the work camps on the Continent, about enslaving the workers and confiscating their property, about working them to death, about gassing those who can’t work, it’s all true.”
I’d never believed it before, not when Siddy mentioned it in the Lyons, not even when Malcolm was giving me facts and figures, but hearing it now in this gentle old man’s quiet voice I couldn’t doubt it. (p. 238)
I usually do not read alternate history because the ideas behind it frequently overwhelm the characters, but Walton places character development in the forefront, hinging the novel on this. While written with an agenda, the reader must decide whether there really is a “good” or “evil” in this story, and where they sit amid shades of grey. This is part of the source of the power in the novel’s message; readers who choose to engage in the novel in this way are forced to look within to know where they might stand, which is not so simple in a world where complacency and ignorance can be so easy and potentially rewarding, even inadvertently, as the culmination of the novel demonstrates.
Ha’Penny is an excellent piece of literature that makes me wish I had more grounding in both Hamlet and WWII history; since I have only smatterings of the two, I can only say that the book is deftly engaging and eerily plausible in the current political atmosphere we live in today. I’ll definitely keep a watch for Walton’s third Small Change book, Half a Crown, which will be released near the end of the month in hardcover.
Walton, Jo. Ha’Penny. New York: Tor Books, 2007. $9.99 (Canadian), paperback.
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