Ha'penny

by Jo Walton

Cover image

Series: Small Change #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: October 2007
ISBN: 0-7653-1853-9
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 319

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Jo Walton's previous novel in this series, Farthing, takes an English country-house murder and a police investigation and turns it into a chilling look at racism and civil liberties in an alternate Britain that reached a compromise peace with Hitler. It's an excellent book that sets up a sequel, but rather than continuing Lucy's story, the sequel went in directions I wasn't expecting.

There are references to the events of Farthing in Ha'penny, but it's quite readable without the previous book. Ha'penny does, however, spoil Farthing, so don't read it first if you plan on reading both, which I highly recommend. Carmichael, the police detective, returns, but the other protagonist is an actress named Viola, estranged from her rich family and concerned primarily with the part she's been offered in a gender-reversed Hamlet.

Carmichael is his same dogged, principled self, investigating an explosion that kills an actress and an unknown man. It's shortly after the events of Farthing, and the country has been kept on edge, afraid of Communists and Jewish terrorists in the continuing fragile peace with Hitler. Terrorism is the first thought, initially dubious, but quickly becoming more credible.

Viola, meanwhile, is pulled out of her focus on the theater world and her happy disregard for her estranged family and hated parents by her sister. Her sisters were her only allies in the bizarre world of her up-bringing, and when one of them calls on that bond, she can't say no. But that soon means she's deep in the middle of a plot to assassinate Hitler and the prime minister of England.

This is an amazing book, even more than Farthing, for the daring and difficulty of what Walton pulls off in it. With Farthing, she skillfully uses a light, occasionally burbling story in a comforting country-house setting to create a growing sense of unease and tension, but it's always clear who the good guys and bad guys are. There's little moral ambiguity in Farthing: the villains are hissable, the protagonists are on the same side (if sometimes at cross-purposes), and the tension comes only from the world collapsing around them. It's the story of a fall from something we all agree with to something we all recognize as broken.

Ha'penny is nowhere near that simple. It's a novel about terrorists, some of whom are clearly dangerous people, and some of whom are intensely self-centered, ideologically driven, and rather frightening. Carmichael is solid, dependable, and likeable. But the terrorists are trying to kill Hitler, and Carmichael is trying to stop them. And, more deeply, Carmichael is following the dictates of his profession as a police officer while using them in defense of a political environment that, as becomes slowly clear, is becoming increasingly evil. Ha'penny doesn't give the reader the comfort of moral high ground in any direction.

Viola herself is a difficult protagonist, much more challenging to the reader than Lucy's honest bravery. She's self-centered, self-absorbed, and wants deeply not to be part of any of the political struggles in the book on any side. She wants to be an actress, worry about her starring role, and continue the life she made for herself in the theater. When she's pulled in against her will, the reader is torn between rooting for her and wanting to slap her for not caring. More disturbingly, Viola is recognizable as every person who wants to live their lives unmolested, who doesn't want to have to choose sides in political struggles, and who has cogent and compelling arguments for why it won't matter anyway. I had trouble with her at first, but found myself identifying with her and sympathizing with her in ways that I never could with Lucy.

And Viola has just as complicated of a relationship with the terrorists as the reader does. When she's not arguing against what they're doing, her attitude towards them starts to take on disturbing aspects of Stockholm Syndrome. And yet, one keeps running abruptly into the fact that they're trying to kill Hitler.

Ha'penny is one of the most layered novels I've read in some time, and the genius is that the surface level is compellingly readable in its own right. Rather than the murder mystery or police procedural, it borrows some of the structure of the thriller. Walton maintains compelling pacing through the book, telling a story that's almost impossible to put down and which kept me up late into the night finishing it. It works wonderfully as pure drama, with slowly converging plot lines, breathless suspense, and an exciting climax. And throughout, hovering beneath the surface, are powerful echos of the political questions of the modern world, told in ways that don't belittle or simplify the complexity. Is terrorism justified if the government is sufficiently evil? Can it make any difference? What's the role of an honorable police officer under a system that isn't quite fascist, but seems to be heading that way? Is it possible to change the system from the inside, or does one only give the system more support? And how much obligation do the individual citizens, who have a hard time coping with their own life, have to try to stop their government?

I avoid books and television programs about World War II like the plague, rarely like alternate history, and would not have picked up this series had I not known additional background about the author and received the first book as a gift. I expect there are many people with a similar opinion who have skipped past Ha'penny and Farthing. Don't. It's a standard rule of thumb that comparisons to Hitler and Nazis rob something of any merit. This is the exception, and that's a remarkable feat. In Ha'penny, Walton even writes Hitler himself into the plot, has him appear on camera, and pulls off a disturbingly different look at a charsimatic politician that works completely in the context of the story.

I expect some readers of Farthing will have a hard time with Viola. I can only recommend giving her a chance, and paying attention to the deeper resonance of the story. (And, in the process, enjoying the bits about Hamlet. If you're at all a fan of the play, you may find yourself, as I was, fascinated by the tweaks and Viola's take on the character and wishing you could see that version of the play performed.) Viola, unlike Lucy, has spent her life skittering off of deep emotion and hard truths. It's a survival tactic, and it's one that occasionally resonated disturbingly. When you look at her in that light, she becomes far more interesting and understandable.

The one warning I will give is that Ha'penny can be deeply depressing. It's an excellent book that may make you despair for the future of the world, and it doesn't sugar-coat the ending. Take warning from the chosen play of Hamlet. The good news is that an additional book is on its way.

Followed by Half a Crown.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-12-14

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21