Ha’penny by Jo Walton
Sometimes, life just comes at you, you know? I tend to do everything in my power to make my life uncomplicated—I’m using my words more, courtesy of Captain Awkward, I make time for sleep and exercise, and I try and do my work in a timely fashion. For the most part, it works, but sometimes life, the ornery thing it is, catches up with you, and I ended up spending a few days feeling utterly crushed by work. In such a fix, I needed a book and an author I could rely on for a quick but mindblowing read—who else could I turn to but Jo Walton?
Ha’penny is the second in Walton’s Small Change trilogy, set in an England that made “Peace with Honor” with Nazi Germany (well, now Nazi Europe). As Inspector Carmichael, compromised from the events of Farthing, is investigating the explosive death of actress Lauria Gilmore, Viola Lark (nee Larkin), mourning her co-star, prepares for the role of Hamlet in a gender-swapped production of the play. But Lauria’s death and one of Viola’s sisters draws Viola into a conspiracy to remove Prime Minister Mark Normanby and Adolf Hitler, the very conspiracy Inspector Carmichael is trying to crack.
I was pecking through Ha’penny over the course of a week until I opened it up and, as if in a trance, rose, settled myself down in some sun, and finished it, squealing and gasping as the tension just wound itself tighter and tighter. Jo Walton, you beauty. It’s funny—a few days ago, I wouldn’t have thought of her as one of my favorite writers, merely a writer whose work I enjoyed, but upon finishing Ha’penny, I realized that I have thoroughly enjoyed every thought-provoking novel of hers that I’ve read, with a few caveats. Having recently read Laura Miller pointing out how genre fiction is, again, getting passed over for prizes, I kind of want to hurl the Small Change trilogy at people who think “genre fiction” is incapable of burning out your soul, especially since it’s a twofer of alternate history and 1940s thriller that uses the form to critique how people behave in the face of true evil. Nyah.
In Farthing, I was swept away by the wonderful Lucy Kahn, but she’s out of the picture here, being replaced by Viola Lark, whose similar voice (careless and casual) belies how different she is—she’s focused and a bit callous. If Farthing was about discovering that the people you love are capable of great evil, Ha’penny is about discovering that you are capable of great evil. Viola is essentially blackmailed into aiding a bombing, which she frets over. Inspector Carmichael faces this challenge in a softer light; he decides, in the middle of the novel, that this case will be his last, and he and his lover, Jack, will retire to New Zealand to escape the moral compromises the force is imposing on him, but over the course of the novel, he realizes that one must try to effect change wherever and however you find yourself. Change, the end of the novel argues, can rarely be imposed by grand actions, but by little ones. Viola’s arc echoes that, as she gets involved with an ex-IRA bomber and tries desperately to shield herself from politics by burrowing into theater.
And oh, what a theater it is! Walton mentions in her acknowledgments (ugh, she and Sarah Monette know each other and write amazing books, I’m getting some feels, as the kids on tumblr say nowadays) the research she had to do to construct Viola’s theatrical world, and she nails it. Obviously, the production itself is very interesting—only Hamlet and Ophelia are reversed—although the line is dropped as the bombing draws nearer and nearer. But it’s both magical and dreary work, which Walton gets. I was also utterly delighted to see how Ireland fared in Walton’s alternate Europe, and watching Devlin, Viola’s Irish beau, call Viola out on England’s non-involvement is brilliant. The relationship itself is a bit… well, I could definitely see Viola and Devlin falling in line as they do, but it might read a bit wobbly to others. Heads up. Otherwise, though, it’s a gripping second installment, and one that makes me want to dive directly into Half a Crown, the final installment in the trilogy. I reiterate: Jo Walton, you beauty.
Bottom line: If Farthing was about discovering that the people you love are capable of great evil, Ha’penny is about discovering that you are capable of great evil. Soul-burning and brilliant, as per usual. Highly recommended.
I rented this book from the public library.