Thursday, December 31, 2009

Half a Crown by Jo Walton

It could be said that Walton writes anti-genre novels: her characters tend to be completely wrapped up in their time and place, not necessarily ordinary, but deeply typical and representative. They rarely even dream of smashing everything and lighting out for the territory, as the typical pulp hero would do instinctively; they're settled and reserved, like good Britons or Canadians.

There's even a point, late in this book, where a top government official, in charge of a vast apparatus of secret policemen (and an only slightly less-vast apparatus even more secret) responds to a punishing personal attack on his power from another, rival government official by running and hiding. A Walton hero, unlike most real-world top leaders, doesn't even think about turning his teeth on his attackers; the default assumption is that a Walton hero won't have any teeth worth using.

This reader had a strong urge to quote The Untouchables at that character -- "They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue." -- and not see him abandon his power. But Walton isn't really interested in characters who have power, and so she maneuvers the few who actually do into situations where she can keep them impotent and oppressed.

Half a Crown is the third in the Small Change Sequence, after Farthing and Ha'penny -- it's not precisely a trilogy, but it is a series of three novels set in the same world and with one major continuing viewpoint character. It's set several years after the first two books, in 1960, and has a somewhat more hopeful set of possibilities than the earlier books did. That's not to say that Half a Crown is sweetness and light; this is an unpleasant alternate history -- in which Hess's flight to Scotland in 1941 led to a brokered peace, a fascist UK, and a Europe solidly in Nazi hands -- and the hopefulness mostly lies in this world possibly having the opportunity to get to something like real democracy and honest civil society.

As usual, the viewpoints alternate, between the third-person Peter Carmichael chapters and those in first-person, from a young woman -- this time Carmichael's "niece," Elvira. The two threads intertwine earlier in this book than in the previous two, and have stronger cross-connections. As to the plot: well, Elvira is about to debut, and Carmichael is head of the Watch, Britain's secret police. Hitler is coming back to London, for a "peace conference," as is the ex-King, the Duke of Windsor, whose followers think the current government is not nearly cruel and tough enough. Protests are beginning to rise, on both sides.

Walton started this series with clear and definite parallels to the modern day; those have become less important in the later novels, though this one has the whiff of 1989 about it. (Better that than 1956, or 1968.) And her fascist England is still horribly plausible, taking the worst tendencies of the British people and using them as the basis of her world. Some alternate histories feel more like wargaming, or special pleading -- this world is a horrible one that we narrowly avoided, and Walton's story gains strength from that.

I wouldn't start here as a new reader; drop back to Farthing if you haven't read any of these books yet. But they're well worth reading; these three novels are both fine crime novels and compelling evocations of the kind of world that we all must work to keep as far away as possible.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"But Walton isn't really interested in characters who have power, and so she maneuvers the few who actually do into situations where she can keep them impotent and oppressed." I'm not sure I'd endorse this as an accurate generalization. Certainly Carmichael remains always aware of how very blackmail-able he is, and aware in a way that cramps his exercise of power, without really enabling him to protect himself or Jack or Elvira. But then I take this series to be more about the power of fear than the fear of power. Have you read Lifelode yet? It's my choice for best book of 2009, and its treatment of power is quite different, I think.

Happy New Year, and thanks for blogging on a dreary New Year's Eve and giving me something to read online! Susan Loyal

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