RogerBW's Blog

Ha'penny, Jo Walton 06 April 2016

2007 alternate-history suspense/thriller, second in the "Small Change" trilogy. Eight years after the "peace with honour" of 1941, as Mark Normanby's new government is cracking down on Jewish communist terrorists, a bomb goes off in a Hampstead suburb. Inspector Carmichael, compromised but useful to his political masters, investigates.

As in Farthing, chapters alternate between the viewpoints of Carmichael and an aristocratic young woman; this time it's Viola Lark, one of six slightly batty aristocratic sisters who deliberately reflect the Mitfords (one of them is married to Himmler, another has flirted with communism, and so on). She's playing Hamlet in a cross-cast performance, but also gets sucked into the conspiracy behind that bombing. Because Hitler and Normanby are going to be in the same box on the opening night of the play…

Where this book slips slightly compared with Farthing is that there's no mystery about it. Carmichael is investigating the plot as Viola Lark is finding out about it; while there is a slow drip of revelation, there's nothing like the deductive process that ran through the first book. This one's much more of a suspense novel, raising tension through the reader's uncertainty about whether the bombing plot will succeed and how the principals will be affected by whatever happens, and its main reason for existing is in any case to show us the world – and to make some important philosophical points. Killing a tyrant may well rid the world of that tyrant, but even if it's done with the best of intentions can it in fact remove the tyranny? Especially if that tyranny wasn't especially unpopular anyway? By the time I got to the final chapters, I found myself entirely ambivalent about whether or not I actually wanted the bomb to go off, which is pretty good going.

As always with Walton, the writing is a joy; not only is it beautifully crafted, it's compelling and free-flowing. The chapters are perhaps a little on the short side, usually only covering one scene, and this makes the transitions between viewpoints feel slightly abrupt. I found Carmichael's story more compelling than Viola's, but both were thoroughly engaging.

Highly recommended, again; you could start here, but there's no good reason not to begin with Farthing instead. Followed by Half a Crown.

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See also:
Farthing, Jo Walton

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