Saturday, December 20, 2008

Book Review: Ha'Penny by Jo Walton

"Was it terrorists?" shouted a man in a beige raincoat, beginning a barrage of questions, impossible to distinguish individually. Carmichael stopped and held his hand up for silence. Royston scuttled through as they closed in on Carmichael. "...same as in Wales?" one last journalist trailed off, embarrassed. "I don't know any more than you do. When I know anything, I'll come out and make a statement," Carmichael said. "Oh, be a sport and give us a quote," a woman said, smiling at him under a dripping hat. "You're the same Inspector Carmichael who solved the Thirkie murder, aren't you?" asked a sharp-nosed man half-leaning on a little red Austin. "Yes," Carmichael said, scowling. Flashbulbs popped. "When I have a statement to make, I'll see you're given it." "Can you confirm that Miss Gilmore has been killed?" the woman asked. The rest was lost in the clamor as they all began to shout again. Carmichael ducked around the barrier and joined Royston on the far side. "It's number thirty-five," the bobby said, indicating a set of steps leading up from the street through a grass bank to a garden gate. "Go around the back." --Excerpt from Ha'Penny by Jo Walton Last year I reviewed Walton's Farthing and was thankful to have the opportunity to read Ha'Penny. Ha'Penny takes place after the events that occurred in Farthing, in the same alternate reality in which World War Two ended with a peace between Great Britain and Nazi Germany and England, during the events in Farthing, slipped into the same fascist dictatorship that made Germany so terrifying. Ha'Penny begins with a mysterious bomb explosion in London, followed by the assignment of Carmichael to the case--the same Carmichael in Farthing, in case you're wondering. As Carmichael begins to investigate, he uncovers a conspiracy to murder Normanby--the new dictator of England--and Adolf Hitler, and finds himself in an even more compromised position than at the end of Farthing, where those with power and who know Carmichael's secrets begin to push Carmichael into the exact place they want him, even if it's against his will. One of the things that I found enjoyable in Farthing, and even more enjoyable in Ha'Penny, was the old-time detective novel feel that Walton manages to produce. I find myself being reminded of all the old Hardy Boys that I used to read as a kid. Granted, Walton's novel is far more complex, dark, and powerful than the Hardy Boys, but this novel still awakens a little of that inner child with its nod to thirties detective fiction. Think of it as Sherlock Holmes for the alternate history crowd! Ha'Penny continues Walton's "tradition" in a big way by taking the story further into the darkness of a world converted to fascism. Many of the complaints I had with Farthing seem to have been put in their place with Ha'Penny, because I now get a greater sense of the hopelessness that Walton has created in this alternate past. I haven't read the third book yet, but I wonder if things will get any better for characters like Carmichael. The interesting thing about Ha'Penny (and something I'm seeing somewhat more of lately) is the focus on morality in the characters we're supposed to be rooting for. Carmichael inevitably has to make a difficult, if not morally questionable, decision to save his own life and the life of his lover. But I don't blame Carmichael; in fact, I completely understand why Carmichael does what he does. Perhaps it was something I failed to acknowledge in Farthing, but Carmichael literally has little choice in the matter. There are other characters who have to make horrible choices as well, such as Viola, who is put into a compromising situation where she will be killed if she doesn't agree to help a group of domestic terrorists--fronted by members of her own family, no less. Walton intentionally gets us (the readers) to question morality by positioning her characters in situations where they have to make decisions that make us cringe. Should Carmichael fight against authority and risk being destroyed along with his lover, or should he agree to the terms forced upon him and hope he can at least affect some change and save a few lives? What about Viola? Is it wrong to commit an act of terrorism in the name of a dead ideal or even an ideal that is not your own? These are the questions that come up for me. Like V For Vendetta, Ha'Penny follows the actions of desperate and methodical individuals on both ends of the spectrum, each trying to get a piece of the political pie for entirely different reasons. Above all these dark images and moral quandaries, however, is a well written piece of literature that reads much as if it had been written in a much more stylistically eloquent era of modern literature. Walton's prose style, thankfully, does not draw too much from that older era, however. Her prose is a mixture of eras, with enough of today's more invigorating flavors to keep an older era at bay--lest it overwhelm the story with description and bits that would otherwise be edited out. This is perhaps a testament to Walton's ability with mimicry, or at least to her natural prose styling. And, as if that wasn't enough, Walton has managed to create a generally realistic persona in Viola: one of those artistic and successful individuals that tend to be rather annoying at times, but still sympathetic. Perhaps the only weak part of Ha'Penny is Viola's romance with Devlin, which feels somewhat overshadowed by much of the book to the point where it feels less like a true romance and more like something contrived or too obvious. Still, I suppose in hindsight I can see what Walton was attempting to do with that relationship; it makes some sense, but I had hoped for more from it than what was given. The end of the book, which I won't utter here, succeeds in keeping my interest. I expect things will get even worse in Half a Crown, the next book in the series. One thing I would like to see in future installments is the return of some other familiar characters, such as the Kahns and Viola. Carmichael is, I think, the main character of Walton's novels, but some of these other characters have had more lasting impacts on me and I would like to see what happens to them. If you liked Farthing, then you're bound to enjoy Ha'Penny. If you've read neither, however, and you enjoy some cleverly written alternate history, then I suggest you check out Walton's novels and see what it's all about. Nothing like some good, elaborate, and well written WW2 alt-hist for a nice evening of reading!

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