I first encountered Jo Walton as a writer when Among Others was nominated for the 2011 Best Novel Hugo. Up until reading it, I had been intending to vote for A Dance with Dragons by George R. R Martin, but after reading Among Others, voted for it, instead. It wound up winning the Hugo that year. My next Jo Walton experience was What Makes This Book So Great? A collection of essays she wrote for the website Tor.com about reading and rereading some of her favourite SFF works and authors. My wife then drew my attention to Tooth and Claw. Tooth and Claw actually won the World Fantasy Award in 2004. I absolutely loved Tooth and Claw. It’s not the easiest book to describe, but the best way to do it from my point of view is if Jane Austen were a dragon in a dragon dominated society then she would have written Tooth and Claw. I’ve read other authors who have attempted to write in an Austenish style, but Jo Walton has done it the best and with dragons, no less!
My wife read Jo Walton’s Small Change series a few years ago, but it sat in my tbr pile for a while, until undertaking this project gave me the time to actually read it.
It’s a trilogy, although the books could be read separately, although as there’s a fairly major spoiler in Half A Crown (the 3rd book) for something that happens in Ha’penny (the 2nd book), it wouldn’t be wise to read those 2 out of order. I found the title of the trilogy and each book itself quite clever. Small Change has a double meaning. It can refer to small denominations of British currency, which farthings and ha’pennies definitely are, but in the case of the books, which are alternate history, it also refers to what may have appeared to be a small change in history at the time it happened, but had much wider reaching implications for the future.
In this case the ‘small change’ was that Rudolf Hess’ 1941 ‘peace’ mission actually succeeded and brought Britain’s war with the Third Reich to a peaceful end 4 years earlier than in our reality (in our reality Hess’ plane crashed, he was taken into custody and spent the rest of his life in prison).
Farthing picks up 8 years later in 1949 and we see a post war Britain that in some ways is similar to the one we know, but in other ways vastly different. Politically in particular. The aristocracy used the peace and their part in it to keep themselves at the top of the tree and the country appears to be at the start of a slide into a Nazi style fascist government. The book itself centres around the murder of a powerful and influential man, what this means politically and how it gets blamed on an innocent party. The book is told from two points of view. One is that of Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard, and Jo Walton elected to use tight 3rd person for his story and investigation into the homicide of James Thirkie. The second is from Lucy Kahn (nee Eversley), and it is told in 1st person. Although Carmichael is her major character (his 3rd person pov is consistent across the trilogy), I found Lucy more engaging and was actually more taken in by her story than Carmichael’s. The author admitted drawing inspiration from the ‘cosy’ mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers, and there is definitely a sense of that in Carmichael’s story, although the deeper he and Lucy dig into the murder, the darker things become and the entire book has this sinister undertone, which was actually very effective. The incidents in the book will forever alter the lives of the two narrators.
Ha’penny takes place mere weeks after the events of Farthing and Carmichael is once again called into service on a major case, this time involving a terrorist plot to assassinate both the visiting Hitler and the British PM. The first person POV in Ha’penny is Viola Lark, an actress, and one of the famous (in this world) Larkins sisters. The Larkins’ girls are loosely based on the Mitford sisters (they were a fascinating bunch, kind of like the 30’s equivalent of the Kardashians. To find out more about them I highly recommend The Sisters by Mary S. Lovell). Jo Walton obviously had to change a few things (the time for one) I couldn’t really work out which of the sisters Viola was meant to be, it was either Nancy or Diana, it was more obvious who Unity, Decca, Deborah and Pamela were. I liked Viola and found her relationship with Devlin quite interesting, however I never warmed to her in the same way I did Lucy. I think knowing a bit about the Mitfords worked against me on that score, as I think individually the actual Mitford girls were more interesting in real life than any fictional counterpart could be. Whereas Farthing was a ‘cosy’ mystery, Ha’penny had more of a political thriller feel about it. Owed more to Len Deighton than it did to Dorothy Sayers.
The final book in the trilogy; Half A Crown pis set in 1960, and Britain is looking more and more like the Third Reich all the time. The small change known as half a crown does feature, but the title refers to Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor (Jo Walton’s afterword leaves the reader in no doubt about her feelings on the man, I feel largely the same from what I’ve read about him, and I haven’t even read his autobiography, which Jo Walton has). Again Carmichael has to foil and uncover a sinister plot to save himself and the country to which he has devoted his life. The fate of his ward; Elvira Royston; a young debutant, through which the 1st person narration is handled is also at stake. I liked Elvira more than Viola and I had her up there with Lucy. In some ways Half A Crown was the least satisfying of the trilogy, this is largely because the happy ending felt a bit tacked on and contrived. I felt my believability bone creaking a bit. Maybe I’m getting old and cynical, but in many ways I would have preferred a bleaker ‘rocks fall, everyone dies’ ending, or even an ambiguous one.
Overall, though, the trilogy was excellent. Although I know the books were written over 10 years ago now (Half A Crown came out in 2008) I’m surprised that they don’t get more attention (in fact Jo Walton as an author does not get the attention that she deserves, not just from the SFF community, but from the reading public in general). She said she wrote them because of the world political situation at the time, but I think they’re even more apt now, particularly with the current US administration, and it’s attempts to shift everything further right. There is a Fatherland and SS-GB feel to them, because the result of WWII was significantly altered, and if they’d been set in the US, they probably could have felt rather like The Man in the High Castle. There is also more than a hint of Orwell’s 1984 (and that is in fact referenced in the trilogy a couple of times as the ‘scientifiction’ novel 1974), which Orwell was prompted to write by events he saw happening around him in Britain in 1948 (the title is the last 2 numbers of the year inverted, Orwell saw Britain getting there in approximately 40 years). Because of the gentle way its presented and the way the menace just lays there in the background for the most part I think that it’s a little better than either Harris’ or Deighton’s efforts and more believable (the end to Half A Crown aside).
Wonderful, under appreciated trilogy, and a great way to end the Mount Toberead project. I don’t have anything for X, Y or Z. After this I’ll be attempting to reread, and in some cases, read, series. I’ll endeavour to cover mostly completed series, but a few ongoing ones may also slip in there. I’ll also try and cover things that may not be as well known. For instance, I’m not sure what I’ll do when I get to M, but I can promise you that it will not be A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve read all the books multiple times and quite like them, but the internet doesn’t need another review of it, by the same token T won’t be Lord of the Rings.