The Small Change series is definitely my discovery of the year. Ha’penny, the second in the trilogy, offers us the ultimate moral dilemma: if you had the opportunity to kill Hitler then would you do it? At great personal cost? And would it make any difference?
Author Jo Walton then wraps that concept in the ultra-clever conceit of an alternative history where Nazi Germany and Britain made peace in 1941 and the UK’s government has degenerated into early stage totalitarianism. Then this ‘what if?’ world in turn disguises a cracking conspiracy thriller and a compelling investigation … and then just in case you’ve missed the central theme, she ties it up in a bow alongside a performance of Hamlet in which the vacillating prince must decide whether to kill the king’s usurper.
It’s all frightfully, impossibly clever. It’s so clever that probably half the references in Ha’Penny whizzed straight by me, but even so I was totally engaged. The pages didn’t just turn; they virtually blurred.
The trick to Jo Walton’s alternative history is how frighteningly plausible it all seems. The British public has accepted Germany as an ally; most of Europe is part of the Reich, and few people care whether Kursk falls to the Russians or the Germans. Bolsheviks and Jews are viewed with suspicion in Britain. The country is slithering into a fascist dictatorship and almost seems to welcome that transition.
And then a bomb plot is discovered – one which might just involve the extended aristocratic family (meet the Mitfords, in many ways) who have married not only into the UK’s ruling elite but also that of the Reich. One of the sisters has married Himmler, and all of the important people will be coming to watch her sibling play Hamlet in London. If there is any British resistance to the move toward totalitarianism then now is the moment for it to act…
…but on the opposing side is Carmichael, the honest policeman inspector from the first novel, Farthing, who acts in good conscience when he can but is nonetheless beholden to his political masters. Will he discover the plot in time to stop it? And should he?
Jo Walton has created a comprehensive reality and set of characters every bit as compelling and authentic as Bernie Gunther in Philip Kerr’s Berlin, or any of Alan Furst’s continental officers from his WW2 novels. The difference is that Walton has set her action in a through-the-looking-glass England, and the players are most definitely British. Their acquiescence – and defiance – feels chillingly accurate.
Totally, utterly superb. One of the few books worth coming back to for a second read in a wee while, just to see what you missed first time around. Hard to find a single thing to fault, so I won’t. My only suggestion is that as the story starts in Farthing, the first book in the Small Change trilogy, then so should you. Ha’penny is a complete, stand-alone story, but it’ll have much more impact if you’ve read the opening episode in the series.
10/10 (a score I very rarely award to anything!)
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Ha’penny is available from Amazon in paperback, as an ebook or audiobook.
However, Farthing, the first the series, is where you should start…