Book Review: The Small Change Trilogy - Jo Walton

There has been a resurgence of interest in alternative history fiction recently - particularly of "the Nazi's won the war" variety (for example, YA books The Big Lie and Wolf by Wolf, and the recent TV versions of the books The Man In The High Castle and SS-GB). Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy - made up of Farthing (2006), Ha’Penny (2007) and Half a Crown (2008) - fits into this sub-genre, although with a subtle but powerful - and arguably scarier - difference. In Walton's universe, Britain did not lose the war - it made peace with Hitler.

So how best to describe the Small Change books? Maybe as an alt.history cosy-whodunnit political thriller? All three books in the series share the same format - chapters alternating between a first-person female narrator (a different young woman in each book, but always an upper class outsider) and a third-person narrator following the series’ detective: Inspector Carmichael.

The first two books are set in Britain in 1949, with Half A Crown taking place about ten years later. In the Small Change universe, a small group of right-wing Tories known as The Farthing Set staged a coup against Churchill and signed a peace treaty with Hitler in 1941, ending WW2 and leaving the Nazis in control of mainland Europe. Britain remains independent but on good terms with Hitler, and is slowly descending into fascism.

I really enjoyed these books - but the first two especially. I found them more interesting, subtle, unnerving and compelling than the third. They were much more real and believable, and all the more affecting for it. Half A Crown, having had a decade for its timeline to drift away from ours, felt much more like an Orwellian dystopian novel than the others. It felt less immediate and realistic, and therefore less directly threatening. Having said that, it is still an excellent dystopian novel. With the recent rise in popularity for far right politics (UKIP, Trump, Le Pen, etc) these books are more worryingly relevant now than when they were published (2006-2008).

I’ve given a brief overview of the three books below. Be warned, it is hard to talk about the sequels without giving spoilers to the earlier plots. I think I've avoided any major ones, but you have been warned.


FARTHING

Farthing cover
Farthing cover

The first person narrator of Book 1 is Lucy Kahn, daughter of one of the Farthing Set, but something of a pariah in her family’s circles due to her marriage to a Jewish man. A murder is committed at a family gathering and it looks as though her husband will be blamed. In steps Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard to attempt to uncover the truth. But how far will the truth go to remain covered, and will Carmichael be able to maintain his integrity - and protect his own secrets - in the face of it all?

Farthing was originally written as a stand-alone novel and is the most Christie-esque cosy whodunnit of the series. Walton has said of Carmichael that "all Carmichael wants is to be a series detective in a normal detective series. It’s his tragedy that he wound up in mine instead."

Farthing is also quite a queer book. In addition to Carmichael (and 'his man' Jack) , a number of other characters are expressly either gay or bisexual. Lucy Kahn and her friend have a special code for talking about people’s sexuality: Greek means gay, Macedonian is bi, Roman is straight (Lucy tells her husband that she had always known that he was Macedonian).

 


HA’PENNY

hapenny.jpg
Ha’Penny Cover

Ha’Penny takes place about two weeks after the events described in Farthing. In it, we see the world through the eyes of Viola Lark, an apolitical actress from a privileged background, but who has tried to distance herself from her upper class family - a thinly disguised version of the Mitfords (one sister is married to Himmler, one is a communist...etc). It is more of a political thriller than a whodunnit - more le Carre than Christie - and sees Carmichael investigating an explosion and uncovering a plot centring around a radical new production of Hamlet, starring Viola Lark in the title role. It is a totally different case to the Farthing murder, but there are recurring characters and situations, so it doesn’t quite stand alone. I read this immediately after finishing Farthing and was delighted to be able to plunge straight back into Walton's world.

 

 

 


HALF A CROWN

hac
Half A Crown cover

The final book in the sequence has a slightly different feel to it. Set in 1960, fascism is well and truly entrenched in Britain. Our narrator here is Elvira Royston, whose father was Carmichael’s sergeant in the first two books. Carmichael adopts Elvira as his ward after her father’s death, and sends her off to a Swiss finishing school. At the time of the story, she is about to make her society debut and is preparing to to go to Oxford University. She has grown up with fascism and thinks it rather fun. She attends a fascist rally - featuring a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it John Lennon cameo1 - and when the rally turns nasty, all her plans and hopes crumble away.

Carmichael’s role in this book is different, too - he has been promoted/blackmailed into heading The Watch - a British version of the Gestapo. As Watch Commander, Carmichael does his best to assuage his guilty conscience by setting up a secret counter group - The Inner Watch - with a few of his most trusted colleagues, to smuggle the state’s victims (Jews, foreigners, queer people, people in the wrong place at the wrong time) to Ireland (who are willing to take them primarily to annoy the British).

The series ends full of both hope and despair, with a denouement that reminded me a little of The BFG, of all things.


 

Here’s a bonus Small Change short story set in the US at the same time as Half A Crown.

 

Asides

  1. It only struck me after reading it that it may have been Lennon - he is not name checked - and a quick Google search confirmed it! (see Q.4 at the bottom of the page)

What do you think?