Ha’Penny, Jo Walton

Tor, 2007, 319 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1853-4

Don’t expect this to be a completely objective review of Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny. In reviewing her Farthing last year, I made a few hasty remarks and eventually ended up on an “Issues in Farthing” panel alongside the author, her editor and fifty of their closest friends. I learned a lot from the experience.

Fortunately, even the pickiest readers will find plenty to like about this second volume in the “Small Change” trilogy. The series, taking place in an alternate England where WW2 appeasement has led the country to a negotiated peace with the Hitler regime, remains an exploration of how so-called “good people” can come to support reprehensible policies. But whereas Farthing was about an unconscious slide into fascism, Ha’Penny goes even further by describing how people reach a willing accommodation with such situations.

The novel brings back Inspector Carmichaels, a capable Scotland Yard investigator who is once again assigned to a case with political implications. This time, a deadly bombing in an expensive neighbourhood triggers the investigation. Early on, the matter is settled as an accident, but that conclusion only raises more questions: Why would a relatively well-off actress be involved in the delicate business of bomb-making? If it’s part of a campaign, who’s the target?

As with Farthing, a female character narrates the other half of the story. Viola Lark, née Larkin, broke away from her upper-class family in order to strike it on her own as an actress. Things are going well for her, but family has a way of reaching back and before even realizing it, Viola is blackmailed in helping a terrorist plot. The target: Adoph Hitler, on the opening night of Viola’s new play…

And so the duelling begins, with a delicious inversion of the usual thriller structure: Usually, we hope for the inspector to catch his prey, and for the plotters to fail. This time, things are different –an irony that eventually isn’t lost on the characters themselves. The twist is further deepened by the tangled loyalties of the characters, Carmichael gradually making compromises to fit in a fundamentally hostile regime even as Viola is manipulated by weak family connections and a reprehensible thug to do something that some readers may consider noble. Both characters are sympathetic and competent in their fields. They just happen to be stuck in an impossible situation, and unable to say no.

Ha’Penny resembles Farthing in that it’s a fascinating look at another time, slightly skewed through the perspective of an alternate history. The world of London theatres at the end of the 1940s is fascinating, and Viola’s routine as she prepares to take the leading role in a cross-cast production of Hamlet accounts for much of the novel’s early interest. But we already know, from the novel’s first chapter, that things are not going to go well for her. Ha’Penny shares with its predecessor a slow-burn pacing, as pieces are put in position and the duelling plot-lines gradually comes closer. The last few chapters pull out the stops as the story reaches its grim conclusion.

If Ha’Penny isn’t as striking as Farthing as a consequence of being a sequel in an already-established universe, it’s generally more interesting: I’m more partial to assassination thrillers than cozy murder mysteries and Ha’Penny moves slightly faster than its predecessor. Viola is a more interesting narrator than Lucy, while Carmichael’s increasingly tainted morals are worrisome. Meanwhile, the character of Walton’s diverging world is also getting more sophisticated. While Ha’Penny takes place too soon after Farthing to present important divergences, the London focus of the book allows readers to see how things are going in the more politically charged atmosphere of the capital and how the new Normanby government is assuming its newfound totalitarian powers. The parallels between that world and ours aren’t as angry or obvious as in Farthing, but they’re more pernicious in that they reflect how people often shrug off bad regimes and rationalize that things will be better… and that nothing is ever their fault.

Newer readers are advised to start with Farthing as this follow-up spoils the first volume and has often-intricate links with its predecessor. (No, we don’t learn what happened to the Khans… but we get a good hint.) But then again newer readers are advised to pick up all Jo Walton novels on general principles. (See, that’s me not being objective.)

The “Small Change” trilogy concludes in Half a Crown, due August 2008, and it’s going to be a long wait.

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