Monday, 25 July 2016
Ha’penny and Half a Crown by Jo Walton
books 2 and 3 of the Small Change trilogy
(Farthing, Book 1, published 2006, blogpost here)
Ha’penny, book 2, published 2007
Half a Crown, book 3 published 2008
[From Ha’penny. Viola, who is about to play Hamlet in front of Hitler, has been invited to an event at the German Embassy in London.]
Mollie explained that she was worried about what I was going to wear to the reception. She’d brought me in the engraved invitation; it had arrived at the flat that morning. There was a swastika embossed into the card…
[Molly said:] ‘I’ve thought what to do about clothes. You could wear your first act costume. It was made for you. And while it isn’t in fashion, it isn’t out of it either, it’s timelessly Elizabethan. And I know it’s finished, because I saw you trying it on.’
My first act costume was a dark blue velvet gown trimmed with gold, high-necked – all my Hamlet clothes were high-necked – close fitting and embroidered to the waist, then flaring out below to give me room to do all the things I had to do. The only time I word doublet and hose was at the end because even Antony could see that I couldn’t fence in a skirt. ‘It would look awfully odd,’ I said. It was a rich dark blue and this year’s colours were all beiges and pastels.
commentary: These are the 2nd and 3rd books of the Small Change trilogy – Walton’s alternative history books looking at life in England if the UK had made an uneasy peace with Germany in 1940. The first one, Farthing, was on the blog here. TracyK at Bitter Tea and Mystery first mentioned the books to me, though I think she hasn’t actually reviewed the trilogy as such. I am very grateful to her, because I liked the books enormously, and they are enthralling, thought-provoking page-turners. (Tracy, I believe, liked the middle one least, whereas I liked the third one least.)
Each book has a similar structure: alternating chapters from a 1st person young woman and a 3rd person policeman, Carmichael. The young woman is different in each book.
In Ha’penny Viola Lark is an aristocrat turned actor – she is about to play Hamlet. Her family is plainly based on the Mitfords – it is amazing to me that I can have NOT read this book before now. An alternate history suggesting different futures for the different sisters, along with a thriller plot,, and a production of blog favourite Hamlet – what book could be more up my street?
Farthing resembled a traditional country-house murder mystery. Ha’penny is more of an action thriller: it is obvious from the beginning that there is a plot to kill Hitler at the theatre, and a lot more is told us in the early chapters. Viola is a great character, and I found the scenes in the theatre milieu very absorbing. (With the three books I had to stay up late to finish the books and find out what happened, each time.)
Half a Crown is set in 1960 and the young woman is Carmichael’s ward, a would-be deb without much clue what is going on in the world.
All three books show a world of anti-semitic laws, legalized bullying and deep corruption. There are small, discomfiting details such as people being asked to ‘show their papers’ – not something that happens in the UK outside wartime. Fascists and neo-Nazis are in charge, and the country is sliding farther and farther into a police state. The role of Carmichael is deeply equivocal.
I liked all three books, though the third had an ending which defied belief – although I think perhaps Walton had her reasons. She comes from a fantasy fiction background, and I was interested to read some reviews and critiques of the series from that world. I don’t read much in this genre, not in alternate history, and there are obviously certain rules and structures and ways of looking at the stories…
All three books are full of references to other authors and books – there are rosette-toed pumps for fans of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, a glance at Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs, and I did wonder if the deadly-serious Watch owed anything to Terry Pratchett. I’m sure there were many more I didn’t recognize.
A great trilogy, and one I am sure I will read again. Highly recommended.
Top picture, from NYPL, shows actress Diane Venora as Hamlet in a scene from the 1982 New York Shakespeare Festival production. (This is, I think, a woman playing a man, whereas in the book, Hamlet has been switched to be a female character).
Second picture: Used it before but it’s so beautiful - Julia Margaret Cameron’s Ophelia, from George Eastman House.
Third picture: Viola talks a lot about her turquoise dress from Paris – this one is from Kristine’s photostream.