by Jo Walton
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Hardly any time has moved on since Inspector Peter Carmichael solved the murder of Sir James Thirkie and been told to come to a different conclusion in Farthing. He quickly finds himself looking into another case, this one involving bombs and the Jews-anarchists-communists that new Prime Minister Mark Normanby came into power decrying. While it appears to be a run-of-the mill investigation, Carmichael brings his full attention to it, driving Jo Walton's novel Ha'penny.
Just as the previous novel alternated between first person chapters focusing on someone tied to the murder and third person chapters focusing on Carmichael's investigation, Ha'penny uses Viola Lark, an actress who was to have appeared in a play with one of the deceased, Lauria Gilmore. Despite Gilmore's death, however, the show must go on, especially as it has been declared that Prime Minister Normanby and the visiting Führer, Adolf Hitler, would be attending opening night.
Although Carmichael’s portion of the story is a straightforward mystery procedural, there is little sense of mystery since the reader knows who is behind the plot. The suspense comes from the tension between Viola-as-narrator and Carmichael and protagonist. Will Carmichael figure out what is happening in time to stop it? How successful will Viola be, either in the plot or in her desire to just be an actress? Most importantly, Walton makes the reader care about these issues. There is a desire to see Viola succeed given the fascist régime she is facing, yet at the same time, the reader also wants Carmichael to succeed.
While the alternative world Walton has created forms a background to Walton’s story, it does play an important role, both in the plot and in the characters’ motives and perceptions. Carmichael’s homosexuality, revealed in Farthing, in a world in which homosexuals were more than just discriminated against, gives the ruling elite a hold over him, and makes him chafe. However, that same hold means the government feels it can trust Carmichael and offers him a position. With another book in the series yet to come, this may indicate Walton’s examination of how good men are seduced by evil, even when they have the best of intentions.
Walton’s characters are all likable, although they have a tendency to be pawns of larger forces, whether it is Carmichael who is working in a system he believes in for a government he doesn’t, or Viola, brought into a conspiracy she has no desire to be a part of. The villains are mostly off-stage, their evil seen more through its macro-repercussions rather than anything as simple as a murder. When Walton does have to depict Hitler, Himmler, or Normanby, she does so cognizant of Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolph Eichmann: the banality of evil.As she did in Farthing, Walton has written a novel in which the characters are the centerpiece, although their world, so different from our own, continuously intrudes on their lives, although not in an obtrusive manner. While many alternate histories have a tendency to dump information about the differences between their world and ours, Walton weaves it, almost organically, into her story, only showing the reader what is necessary for flavor and plot.
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