Half a Crown

by Jo Walton

Cover image

Series: Small Change #3
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: October 2008
ISBN: 0-7653-1621-8
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 316

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This is the third book in the Small Change series and, this time, shouldn't be read without reading both of the previous books. The events of Farthing are directly relevant to the plot, and Ha'penny explains how the characters, particularly Carmichael, reached the positions they're in.

Advance warning: the ending of this book significantly shapes its feel and impact. I'll therefore be discussing the ending in more detail than I normally would, so while I'll try to stay away from discussion of specific plot events, this review has significant spoilers for the feel and general shape of the story. I'll warn below before I start that discussion.

Following the previous books in the series, Half a Crown is again told in perspectives alternating by chapter. One thread follows Carmichael, former police detective and now higher in the government, in third person. The other thread is first person and has shifted again to a new woman, this time Elvira, Carmichael's ward. She has been fostered with a family who felt to me somewhere on the border between upper-middle class and the bottom of high class, and as Half a Crown opens, she's entirely wrapped up in her upcoming debut and helping to distract an unwelcome suitor from her best friend. Meanwhile, Carmichael, trapped by the events of Farthing and Ha'penny, struggles to do what he can within Britain's increasingly fascist government while publicly supporting it.

An outstanding strength of this series is Walton's ability to use a somewhat bubbly and apparently shallow narrator, concerned initially entirely with her own life, to highlight the horror of Britain's slow slide into fascism. Nowhere is this as powerful as it is here. Elvira is a crucial few years younger and has known no other world. She sees fascism not as something fearful or as something political to ignore, but as kind of neat and a fun display.

Early in the book, Elvira is excited to go to see a fascist rally, thrilled by the pageantry of uniforms and marching. The rally includes open degradation of Jews, and in her half-bewildered conflict between human compassion and emotional response to the parade the reader can see the effectiveness of unquestioned propaganda. It's a moment where the reader and the viewpoint character have stunningly different reactions to the same scene, the reader's deepening dread in direct conflict with the character's girlish excitement. It's horror, but with a light touch that doesn't wallow and thereby lay it on too heavily to be grasped. It's a glimpse through the cracks of the fascist world into its depths, all the more effective because it's only a glimpse and the reader's attention stays focused on the character's blindness rather than a litany of horrors. I couldn't help but like Elvira despite her blindness; she's a good person, intelligent within her own focus, and with just enough flair of human compassion to show basic goodness without undermining just how bad things have gotten. It's a tightrope that Walton walks brilliantly.

Elvira's main plot, for the first part of the book, skitters over the top of the political situation. Carmichael strikes a deeper, more serious note, but it's a sad and despairing tone, an effort to do a little when to do enough seems impossible. Both stories show how much this Britain has become about power rather than law, political maneuvering replacing investigation and limits set by the force of personality rather than by any legal structure. It's the most prominent in Carmichael's story, but even Elvira's first thoughts when she's in danger are of the power of her relations rather than the law. Carmichael's life is not short of tragedy, but the one that struck me the sharpest was that he's no longer a detective. There's no room for detectives; the country house mystery that opens the series in Farthing is no longer possible in this world. The political considerations that twisted the investigation would now be all anyone involved would think about.

The first sections of Half a Crown have the feeling of a walk along the edge of the cliff. Elvira is caught up in dangerous politics while completely ignorant of what they mean, and Carmichael is in constant and growing danger. Partway through, it shifts into the story of Elvira's growing awareness of the situation and Carmichael's quest for redemption from the compromises he's made. The tension builds throughout into breathless action, the falls brutal but still survivable, until the protagonists are reduced to raw determination, loyalty, and the desperate bravery to do whatever they can.

This series is a story of courage. Elvira, like Viola and Lucy before her, initially seems self-centered and trivial, but she wins over the reader's admiration as she steels herself when her life starts to fall apart. I love the way Walton constructs her heroes here. Carmichael is the traditional hero, the canny police detective, the deeply moral man who is aware of what's happening, but he's trapped by circumstance into increasingly uncomfortable and desperate compromises, out-maneuvered and ineffective. Elvira doesn't appear to be a hero: she's sheltered, naïve, and interested mostly in living her own life. But she has an innate core of decency, loyalty, and morality, and she has true courage, persisting in doing the best thing that she can as she understands it no matter what happens. Walton has now pulled off this sort of evolution and counterpoint three times, and each time I've loved the journey. I started the book wanting to admire and root wholeheartedly for Elvira despite her flaws, and Walton slowly gave me the opportunity to do exactly that.

The next five paragraphs discuss the ending in some detail. If you want to avoid spoilers, skip down to "end spoilers" below.

The ending to Half a Crown, it must be said, is a grand deus ex machina. Walton adds a third political actor at the very end of the story who extracts a somewhat implausible happy ending from a bleak situation. Despite realizing generally what was going to happen a bit in advance of the ending, I found it jarring. That said, and in full knowledge that this may be apologetics for a book that I otherwise loved, I think the ending has more justification than it might first appear.

First, while the constrained narrative structure of the book doesn't allow addition of a third voice, one can imagine the hidden maneuvering that might lead to the ending. The characters would necessarily have to be ignorant of it to keep the dramatic tension, but that's also not implausible. Elvira only lights the match; the groundwork was already in place. Second, things are by no means rosy after the ending. Considerable damage has been done and the future is still much in doubt. The ending provides only hope, not a sudden reversal and resolution.

Thematically, the deus ex machina only provides a means for the growing general dissatisfaction to play out. The true change in Half a Crown is not the ending action but the popular unrest that had been growing throughout the book. It's telling that the idea came from two of the very few working-class people that we see throughout the book. It's an idea that at first seems naïve, but it's also based on personal connection, on individual people reaching out to each other, on an ideal of one-to-one connection that bypasses the hideous machinery of a fascist state. This highlights what I see as a theme of the series: the strongest resistance against fascism throughout has been built on people seeing and responding to people, on personal relationships and the sense of empathy and community that one feels when face-to-face with another person. It's in that light that I find the scenes with the Jewish family near the end deeply significant. They may be a way-station in the plot, but they represent a re-establishment of human connection.

I also found it interesting that Elvira begins as the most blind of the female protagonists of the series. Lucy is perceptive if not political. Viola is determinedly apolitical in a way that implies she has a sense of what she's choosing not to think about. Elvira is completely duped. As such, she's symbolic of the population as a whole. Her slow awakening parallels that of the country. The government, through internal infighting, has missed a cue and overstepped its external justifications. An apparently irrelevant act proves to be the one that finally catches public attention, and once the slow process of realization starts, it can't be stopped. If one sees Elvira as the representative of the awakening general population rather than an audacious individual hero, I think the ending falls more comfortably in place. One can still question the optimism about human nature this displays, question the reversal on a slippery slope, or skeptically point out that it seems improbable Elvira's path would be undefended, but I think those points are at least arguable.

Regardless of the thematic merits of the ending, it's wholly successful as drama. It brings together the two sides of Elvira's story, it ties together the whole book into what retrospectively seems like a single path, and it builds on the tension and peril of the rest of the book in a conclusion that I found deeply emotionally satisfying. My questioning of the ending was after the fact; while reading, I couldn't bear to stop turning the pages.

End spoilers.

I think this series as a whole is simply brilliant, and Half a Crown only strengthens that feeling. I can't recall reading another series that better illustrates the way great crimes can co-exist with normality and the misdirections of thought and attention that allow that to happen. I also can't recall such a non-traditional and compelling portrait of courage in the simple sense of making oneself do what one has to do without excessive dramatics. I came away respecting Walton's heroines more than any traditional teeth-gritting physical protagonist.

This review puts me in the somewhat precarious position of disagreeing utterly with John Clute, one of the luminaries of SF criticism. His review in Strange Horizons was quite negative, and I utterly disagree. The lightness of tone of the first person segments that he found so disagreeable is to me one of the chief merits of the book, a tactic that allows the horror of the situation to be highlighted in contrast and sink in more deeply because it sneaks around the edges of one's attention. The world he sees in stasis I see develop and change significantly over the course of three books, exemplified by Carmichael's path away from detective towards exercise of raw power. He complains that no one seems to notice what is happening, but this is so clearly not the case. Everyone notices, but they choose to explain it away or to not care. That's the core of the series, and if he doesn't see that, I can understand why he sees so little merit in it. To me it was chillingly convincing.

I will partly concede the ending to Clute, although I've attempted to mount a defense of it above and have found it more agreeable with time. For the rest, I can say only that what did not work for Clute worked profoundly well for me. The characters he found deplorable I loved, the beginnings he thought poor drew me in completely, and the politics that he finds so unbelievable I find echoes of support for in Orwell's analysis of the nature of fascism contemporary with the opening of the series. Throughout his review, I think Clute mistakes not noticing with the subtly but significantly different act of choosing not to notice, and therein lies the heart and soul of these books.

The heroes of the Small Change series are not daring political operatives who penetrate deep into the heart of dystopia. They're not survivors of brutally enforced knowledge of the hell of fascism. They do not mount philosophical or intellectual arguments against the dystopia. They are, instead, relatively ordinary people who see horrors happen in front of them and choose to notice. Pace Clute, I think we can indeed learn from such a story.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-12-28

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