Tor, 2008, 316 pages, C$28.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1621-9
True to form for Jo Walton’s work, Half a Crown is both familiar and unexpected, successful and flawed, charming and unnerving. As the third book in the “Small Change” trilogy, it has to live up to the expectations set by its predecessors, which described the course of an alternate history in which England played nice with the Nazis. The result was fascism with a kindly British face, told in alternating chapters by young women and a detective with more and more to lose.
This detective, Peter Carmichael, has risen through the ranks in the decade-and-a-half since the previous volume: Now head of the secret police, he spends half his time upholding the law of his government and the other half doing what he can to lessen the oppression. The years since Ha’Penny have been rough on England: In almost fifteen years of totalitarianism, the population has come to an arrangement in tolerating its oppressive government. Some people have lived nearly their entire lives under this type of regime, and find the whole thing natural.
Which brings us to the other narrator of the story: Elvira, daughter of Carmichael’s old partner, now his ward but also eighteen and anxious to become a débutante. Her introduction into formal society won’t go as planned as a rally turns violent and police arrest her. For both Elvira and Carmichael, this is the beginning of momentous events that will change everything. 1960 London is boiling with tension, and this gives Half a Crown an extra layer of urban complexity that wasn’t immediately obvious in the first two novels of the trilogy.
As ever, it’s Walton’s low-key extrapolation of British fascism that make up the bulk of the novel’s conceptual appeal. Draped in King and Cross, Half a Crown show that fascism can become part of the background noise –especially if one learns to ignore the occasional cries for help. If the political events of Farthing could be considered an accident and Ha’Penny can be seen as a missed chance to make things better, Half a Crown is more pernicious because it shows that totalitarianism isn’t something that will be automatically be resisted by everyone. The inertia of ordinary people, promised nothing less than what they already have, can be a surprisingly amoral force.
As for the novel’s more conventional qualities, there’s little to say: Walton is a careful writer, and there’s a great deal to like about Half a Crown‘s characters (especially as they’re forced to make the choices their whole lives have been leading to), the slow-burn pacing and the way Walton finds essential details in commonplace things. Fans of the first volume will finally learn what happened to the Khans, although the answer and its implications may not be as reassuring as they may think.
The only element of the book that is likely to cause controversy is the ending. The “Small Change” trilogy has been relentlessly downbeat, and though everyone can forgive a happy ending, Half a Crown seems to make things awfully easy on itself, in a way that practically begs for a dose of sarcasm. A short royal conversation, a proclamation and the whole thing is on its way out? It fits and yet doesn’t: despite the sacrifices of the characters (and yes, a recurring character does die along the way), Half a Crown‘s ending seems to wrap up too quickly and easily.
But it’s also fair to say that the principal strength of the series has been about journeys, about the day-to-day life rather than the cusp points or the wrap-up. Walton, in a way, has attempted the portray the unstoryable, the way in which we get used to horrible things. Comfort from routine can be found in the oddest places, and upsetting this routine always feel wrong somehow, even when the change ends up (or should end up) being for the better.