Friday, July 13, 2012

Debutantes & fascists

Half a Crown, Jo Walton

This is the third book in Jo Walton's "Small Change" series, set in a world where Britain made peace with Germany in 1941 and then itself turned toward fascism. Where the other two books (Farthing and Ha'penny) are set in the 1940s, this book is set in 1960. Hitler and his Reich still dominate the Continent, the sole power now that an atomic attack has neutralized Russia. The United States has also been hit with nuclear weapons, leaving it demoralized and even more isolated. In Britain, as delegates from the remaining world powers are arriving for a conference, meant to bring peace and a new world order, the government is preparing to open its first death camp. No longer will it have to send Jews and other undesirables to the Reich's camps on the Continent.

Peter Carmichael, a familiar figure from the previous books and now commander of the Gestapo-like Watch, has his hands full trying to ensure the safety of the delegates, including Hitler. (The Watch is meant to be the the terror of Britain's population, but every time I see the word I think of Sir Samuel Vimes and the Ankh-Morpork Watch, with its dwarves and trolls and Nobby Nobbs, and it rather spoils the menace for me.) Outwardly a loyal servant of the government, Carmichael also runs an "Inner Watch," an Underground Railroad to rescue innocent victims and get them safely out of the country. As a gay man, living with his lover Jack, who acts as his manservant, Carmichael himself could become the target of the Watch if he were outed, which is the weapon his superiors use to keep him in line and working for them.

All of this takes place during the start of the social season. Among the debutantes preparing for their presentation is Carmichael's ward Elvira Royston, the daughter of his sergeant, who was killed in the line of duty. Carmichael has sent her to the best schools, including an exclusive finishing school in Switzerland, and he has helped her achieve her dream of entering Oxford. His position and his money have induced the mother of a school-friend to present her, though Elvira is "not quite." One night Elvira and her friend Betsy accept an invitation from an eligible young bachelor to go to a fascist parade and rally, led by the "Ironsides." She thinks of it as a patriotic and fun evening out. But the rally turns into a riot, as speakers and a charismatic young singer from Liverpool challenge the Prime Minister, Mark Normanby, and his government as weak shadows of Germany. In the chaos, Elvira is separated from her friends and arrested. Using her guardian's name for protection draws him into an increasingly complex political situation and endangers them both. As unrest with the Normanby regime grows, rumors swirl around the Duke of Windsor, in London for the peace conference. Could he be plotting to regain the throne? It is a bad time to have one's loyalty in question, or to be suspected of subversive activities - and there are informers everywhere, even in the Watch.

As in the previous books, Walton tells this story in chapters that alternate between third-person narrative, focused on Carmichael, and a first-person narration, in this book Elvira's. I did not find her as engaging a narrator as Lucy in Farthing and Viola in Ha'penny. Unlike those two, Elvira has grown up in fascist Britain, it's all she has ever known, and she doesn't question it. She is completely focused on getting to Oxford, though I can't imagine that there is much academic freedom in the universities of this Britain. Her experiences as a prisoner and a target of the regime do open her eyes to some of its horrors, she learns empathy for her fellow victims, and she comes to understand that she has never really known her "Uncle Carmichael."

Like Ha'penny, this book is more of a thriller than a mystery, and it is the fastest-moving and most complex of the three. I think it is also the bleakest, as we see the human cost of the regime (like Betsy, I am haunted by the fate of one small child, part of the Ironsides' parade). There are wheels within wheels, as Carmichael and Elvira move around London, both constantly at risk of arrest and worse. The tension and the stakes keep rising - and then suddenly comes a most improbable ending, one that left me thinking "Huh?" and with a raft of questions (from non-spoilery reviews like Jenny's over on Shelf Love I knew that the ending was problematic, but I was completely unprepared for it). I really think that Jo Walton owes us another book, to tell us what happened next.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!