on October 22, 2007
I read Farthing last year and thought it was brilliant; Ha'Penny is just as good. Farthing's plot was a country-house mystery; I would call Ha'Penny more of a suspense thriller, and full of suspense it is, right up to the explosive ending.
It follows on quite shortly after Farthing: Inspector Carmichael has just come off the Farthing case and has been assigned to a bombing which killed leading actress Lauria Gilmore. Viola Lark has been chosen to act Hamlet in a gender-switching production of the play, in which Gilmore had also been cast until her untimely death. As Carmichael investigates the bombing and ponders retirement from the police force, Viola is drawn into a plot to kill Hitler at the opening night of the play, along with Prime Minister Mark Normanby, the lead figure in the increasingly fascistic government.
As in Farthing, Walton alternates voices chapter by chapter, between Viola's first person and Carmichael's third, and both are equally absorbing; I especially liked the reflections of Viola's mental state in her role as Hamlet, as she wavers about her involvement in the plot and treads the edge of sanity. As England slides further and further into fascism, Walton's alternate history, always convincing, becomes more and more frightening.
on November 20, 2007
I read a lot of junk; I'll admit it. But every once and awhile, I have to read something that causes me to think. Ha'penny fits this category. A sequel to Farthing, this alternate history continues that fine book's exploration of what may have happened if the U.S. did NOT help Great Britain during WWII. Profoundly chilling, beautifully written--and challenging, Ha'Penny is a subtle and personal exploration of how individuals in postwar London are affecting by the wave of facism which has reached Britain's shore. Each successive tide strengthens the power of the wave, yet lessens the resistance. British citizens start to accept the unacceptable.
The plot is complex; I won't reveal it here. But the resistance features a pitiable, almost laughable combination of military patriots, peers, terrorists and theatre types who try to assassinate the fascist leaders of England and Germany with inept plots, and amateur explosives.
Fascinating. One of the things that amazed me is that I kept rooting for the "wrong" side! Like the protagonist, I did not know which side were the "good" guys. The Scotland Yard Inspector who becomes the "hero" realizes that he may have done more harm than good. I can not wait for the next installment of this literary jewel of a series, which combines alternate history, real history, mystery and social commentary.
on May 13, 2015
Alternate history is a curious branch of science fiction — or, perhaps more properly, of speculative fiction. Because the factor that limits the author’s imagination aren’t the boundaries of science but those of history itself: reality. To work, alternate history must be believable in the context of what we know of our past. In Ha’penny, the second volume of her Farthing Trilogy, accomplished British science fiction and fantasy writer Jo Walton has achieved that, and more. She has written a gripping, suspenseful novel that illuminates the past with her artful imagination.
In Farthing (reviewed here) the first book of the trilogy, Nazi Germany and England had signed a peace treaty in 1941, leaving Hitler dominant on the Continent — before the seminal events that drew the US and the USSR into the war. The “Farthing Set,” the group of right-wing aristocrats credited with ending the war, is poised on the brink of power eight years later. Farthing — combining alternate fiction with a murder mystery — tells the story of the violence that facilitated their ascent to power.
How could this have happened in the seat of democracy? It’s not so far-fetched. “England is like a country of sleepwalkers, walking over the edge of a cliff,” Walton writes, “and has been these last eight years. You’re prosperous, you’re content, and you don’t care what’s going on the other side of the Channel as long as you can keep on having boat races and horse shows and coming up to London to see a show . . .” Is this description so far from today’s reality, when the Conservative Party, which has stubbornly kept Britain in recession for five years, has just been returned to office with its biggest victory in thirty years?
Ha’penny picks up the story shortly after the Farthing Set has settled into 10 Downing Street. The scene shifts from the country home in the village of Farthing where the first book was set to London’s theater district. There, Viola Lark, one of the six notorious Larkin sisters, has achieved stardom on the stage and is set to begin production of a production of Hamlet, with herself in the title role in the theatrical fashion of the age. Viola cares only about the theater. She’s less than indifferent to politics. But the novel tells the fascinating tale of her gradual immersion in a plot to put an end to the fascist Farthing regime that has recently risen to power.
At the center of the story are the aristocratic Larkin sisters. They’re closely modeled on the real-life Mitford sisters, whose divergent paths through life in the 1930s, 40s, and beyond kept the English people variously entertained and enraged. The noted journalist and author Ben McIntyre describes them as “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur.” In truth, two of the sisters (Diana and Unity) were close to Hitler; Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley, the head of the British fascist party. Nancy and Jessica, both accomplished writers (Jessica wrote the widely acclaimed The American Way of Death pillorying the funeral industry), were also both left-leaning. Jessica, who moved to the US early in life, was a member of the American Communist Party until 1958. [I’m proud to say that I knew Jessica Mitford — she was better known as Decca — for a few years in the 1970s. She had long since settled in Berkeley with her second husband, a leftist attorney. Decca was a brilliant social critic with a wicked, non-stop sense of humor.] With such stranger-than-fiction models for her characters, Jo Walton could hardly be faulted for a too-vivid imagination in writing Ha-penny.
Jo Walton has written a total of eleven novels, one of which, a fantasy titled Among Others, won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel in 2011 and 2012. Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown form the Farthing Trilogy. They were published in 2006-2008.
on May 4, 2015
Jo Walton is a master of alternative history - in this case the premise of World War 2 being ended by a peace made between Great Britain and Germany in 1943. Ha'penny is set a few years after the peace, and narrated alternately by a first person actress from a titled family (loosely based on the Mitford family) and the third person story of a police inspector investigating an accidental detonation of a bomb intended to kill Hitler and overthrow the fascist government of Great Britain. The main characters are beautifully drawn, and the oppressive nature of a Britain that could have been is masterfully, subtly and believably created. This is the second book in a trilogy - I'm now reading the third.
on September 9, 2014
This is part of a trilogy. To be honest, I forgot which book in the trilogy this is.
The main theme of the books is the theme of trading principals for security and status quo. In this alternate history the UK makes their own peace with Hitler. Watching fascism creeping deeper and deeper into the fabric of the UK is terrifying.
The first book in the series struck me as the scariest of all, even though things are out in the open by the last book.
on October 27, 2007
Jo Walton's latest alternative history novel (the middle volume in a trilogy that will be completed next year) continues in the world of *Farthing* (and is set shortly after that novel). Where the first novel was, at its core, a country-house murder mystery, *Ha'penny* is a thriller, with its motivating engine being a race between Inspector Carmichael (who featured in *Farthing* as well) and anti-fascist plotters.
The novel alternates between two viewpoint characters, Carmichael and Viola Lark (née Larkin) an actress and daughter of an aristocratic family modelled on, but not identical to, the Mitfords.
This novel gripped me from the moment I started reading. Walton knows how to spin a story, and she manages, with a few deft touches, to give us a real sense of what this alternative world is like. I'm looking forward to the final volume, *Half a Crown*. I just wish I didn't have to wait a year.
on December 31, 2015
After finishing Farthing about a week ago, and while waiting to borrow Ha’penny from my local library, I read various reviews, including ones that were pretty critical of Walton’s tale. Interestingly, while I don’t agree with their conclusions, I understand the criticisms, which include poor characterization of secondary characters (Normanby is generically evil, David Kahn saintly), a surprisingly large number of gay or bi- characters, especially amongst the bigoted proto-fascists, stereotyping (everyone’s sexual orientation can be determined by how they take their tea), and a very quick slide into fascism.
Despite these justified criticisms, I enjoyed Farthing and looked forward to Ha’penny. I liked the second book but was disappointed by Walton’s characterization of Viola Lark, the fictional Mitford sister who takes the “ordinary person caught up in conspiracy” role occupied by Lucy Kahn in the first book. I don’t mind Viola’s disinterest in taking a stand against the growing oppression; I think that’s what most people would do. But Viola’s entry into the conspiracy can be explained by her family connections and fear for her own safety without the wholly unconvincing, almost certainly one-sided, love story that Walton depicts. Instead of giving her dimension, it makes Viola shallow. And that’s disappointing because I could sympathize with much of her story, but never that part.
I also find it difficult to believe that Inspector Carmichael never for a moment thinks of the consequences of stopping the assassination plot until after it’s occurred. This is a man who professes to be disgusted by Normanby and his coercion, but never stops for a moment to think, “Hey, might things might be better if he’s dead? Maybe I should just let things go?” I could accept Carmichael’s decision if he had wrestled with it and chose the path of law and order because it was the one principle that he could continue to believe in. I just couldn’t believe that, in the course of about a week between his discovery of the basic plot and the result, he never gave any thought to whether it would be better to remain silent and do nothing.
What I do think Walton does well is to depict how ordinary people are likely to react to increasingly fascist policies; depressingly, most people are unlikely to stand up and protest when they’re not the ones in the line of fire. Viola is only one such character in the book.
Despite my frustrations, I enjoyed reading Ha’penny. Walton writes well and her pacing is excellent; I didn’t want to put the book down. And I immediately started Half a Crown because I looked forward to reading the final story.
on March 10, 2016
This is the second book in the Farthing series. Set in an alternative history of Britain where the government came to an accord with the Nazi government instead of entering WWII, the book opens with a bomb exploding in a residential neighborhood. Inspector Carmichael is sent to investigate to find out if this was an IRA terrorist act gone wrong, a leftover from the war, simply a gas explosion, or something else entirely. He finds a puzzle, with a dead prominent actress and an unknown man. Following the trail leads him to a conspiracy that threatens to take down the realm. We see the plot from both sides and the seeds of unrest that have come out of peace pact with Hitler. Carmichael is conflicted, with his own secrets to hide, and hopes to get out of the police at the end of the case, but finds himself again pushed into a corner by those in power who know his secret. This is a well paced, and carefully researched alternative history and I look forward to the concluding volume
on December 22, 2008
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!
on October 16, 2015
One of the best books, let alone mysteries, I've read. Jo Walton show more plot and character development in 370 pages than some better known (and less deserving of popularity) do in their bloated works.