Welcome to another helping of Covet the Covers. This week I’m featuring Jo Walton’s covers, which are a mix of fantasy, alternate history (The Small Change series) and magic realism, standalones and series… I shall be sharing my thoughts about her book Lifelode tomorrow – but all her books are a major reading event as her writing talent is off the charts and she always produces something thought-provoking and original. She is one of the most gifted, inspired authors writing SFF today. See my reviews of Tooth and Claw, Among Others, Farthing, Ha’penny, Half a Crown, My Real Children, The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, Necessity, The King’s Peace, The King’s Name, and Lent.
This is the final book in this riveting alternate history series, and my strong recommendation is that if you pick up Half a Crown without reading the other two – don’t. Read my review of Farthing here and Ha’penny here. While Walton has structured each book so that it can be read as a standalone, you will lose a great deal in the narrative progression and some of the nuances Walton has woven into the storyline. She is a subtle writer, who assumes her readers are capable of drawing their own conclusions, without it being necessary for her to spell out every consequence of the scenario she has depicted. And I love the play on words with the title of this particular book – customary Walton sharp cleverness…
In a world where England has agreed a peace with Nazi Germany, one small change can carry a huge cost… It is the 1960s. Hitler and the Duke of Windsor are among the global leaders who are convening in London to agree the final partition of the world. Inspector Carmichael is now commander of The Watch – Britain’s infamous police force. As endgame approaches, he is forced in a position where there is no going back. Whatever happens now, Carmichael is no longer able to keep up a façade of normality while the English are increasingly subjected to a despotic rule.
And that is – more or less – the blurb. So we have moved on some twelve years since the ending of Ha’penny. Elvira Royston, Inspector Carmichael’s adopted ward, is about to be presented at court as a debutante, so we have the same narrative structure that has worked so well in the previous two books – a dual narrative between Carmichael and his stiff reserve hiding another, forbidden lifestyle, and a younger female protagonist. Elvira does not have the poise and self assurance of either Viola or Lucy, but she is just as feisty. Walton has managed to pull off a tricky issue that could have tripped up a less skilled writer – each of her female protagonists featuring in the trilogy have their own quite separate voices, giving each book a different emotional tone.
It was interesting to note that in this final book, which ramps the climax up to the point of life and death – it starts far more quietly with a longer buildup than the previous two volunes. But as ever, once the action begins, Walton’s stylish, understated prose belies the tension that pings off the page. I was hooked. Despite needing to get up and get going – I was stapled to the book and going nowhere until I found out exactly what would happen next.
The other issue Walton has to consider with this, the third offering in the series, is a sense of predictability. But once it all starts to kick off, I couldn’t work out what would happen next and certainly didn’t see the denouement coming – particularly as Walton doesn’t necessarily have her stories end, ‘and they all lived happily ever after…’ However she produces a fitting and satisfactory conclusion to this fascinating and chilling alternate history series. If your taste runs to this sub-genre, don’t miss it – Walton is one of the most talented fantasy writers producing work today. Whether you agree with her take on this intriguing exploration of an alternate history, or not – I’ll guarantee that Walton’s world will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book.
I have a real weakness for well told alternate histories and absolutely loved the first book, Farthing – see my review here – in this alternate Britain where we come to terms with Hitler’s Nazi Germany after initially joining the war. So in the early 1950s, the Nazi party runs Europe and is still fighting Russia and disturbing rumours percolate of death camps and gas chambers for any remaining Jews – although these are officially ignored or scoffed at.
However, the character who bounced off the page for me in Farthing – Lucy Khan – isn’t in Ha’penny. Would I still enjoy this book without such an outstanding protagonist? In a world where England has agreed a peace with Nazi Germany, one small change can carry a huge cost… Following the Farthing Peace, England appears to have all but completed an inexorable descent into fascist dictatorship. However when a bomb explodes in a London suburb, resistance seems to be underway. The brilliant but tormented Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard is assigned the case and uncovers a conspiracy of peers and communists to murder the Prime Minister and his ally: Adolf Hitler.
So there you have it – another murder mystery. Again, it has a real feel of an Agatha Christie whodunit during the investigative process where we follow Michael Carmichael’s efforts to discover who blew up a well-known actress and her companion. But under this apparently cosy surface is the darker underbelly of this novel – England is sleep-walking towards a dictatorship and Walton makes this seem chillingly plausible. For those of us who might bluster it could never happen here, in the cradle of democracy – just see how it’s done. A weakened opposition, a population demotivated to care overmuch about the political process – and an underclass feared and hated by almost everyone and used as a convenient scapegoat by politicians for the financial stagnation and hardship the country is suffering. In Ha’penny it is the Jews – but insert any other social minority that may spring to mind… Because when I read this book, I became aware that Walton isn’t writing about the past – she is flagging an urgent warning about the present. This book series should be required reading in all schools and colleges in my opinion – democracy is fragile and particularly in this country, I think we are waaay too complacent about our political system.
However, this book is a dual narrative – and alternating with the chapters where Carmichael is attempting to track down the bomber, is Violet Larkin, an actress from a high-born family raised in a draughty castle. Her parents’ desperate wish for a son to continue the family living at Carnforth Castle means there are six girls. They didn’t go to school, or indeed, receive much attention at all. So were largely left to their own devices. Viola describes a childhood where the siblings spent hours together playing or feuding, before adulthood scattered them. The family are, apparently, loosely based upon the Mitfords.
Viola rejects the life of a debutante to become an actress and is officially snubbed by her family, although her sisters do keep in touch from time to time. Celia marries Himmler and is living in Nazi Germany, while Siddy has become an active communist and tries to persuade Viola into helping with a scheme to try to bring about the end of the Third Reich. However, Viola isn’t interested – she’s apolitical, assuming that what the papers say is right. Her heart and soul is wrapped up in her acting career and she has just landed a plum part. In the current fashion for gender swapping classic roles, Violet gets to play Hamlet… And furthermore, the Prime Minister will be attending with a distinguished visitor – Adolf Hitler is on a state visit to the country and will be coming to see the play.
I lost my heart to Lucy Khan by the second page of Farthing – it took me a little longer to fully bond with Viola Larkin. She is a far more nuanced, complicated character, who has weathered a tricky start in life to find her own personal haven and is very reluctant to give it up and face what is going on around her. Throughout the book, she gradually begins to realise the truth of the situation – and then is confronted with the question, what should she do? Walton’s exceptional writing drew me right into the heart of Viola’s dilemma – and while my jaw dropped at her initial reaction, it didn’t take me long to realise that it was absolutely plausible.
I may have given the impression that this is a somewhat grimly turgid political tome, with a slight leavening of a whodunit adventure. Nothing could be further from the truth – Walton is always all about entertaining her reader and ensures that the storyline is king. It is what she also manages to pack between the lines with her sophisticated, understated prose that makes her a shining talent. And this book is every bit as gripping and suspense-filled as Farthing – and leaves Inspector Carmichael with a spiffy new job, heading up the British equivalent of the Gestapo… I can’t wait.