In this, the final installment of Jo Walton’s “Small Change” alternate-history trilogy, it is 1960. (Here are my reviews of Farthing and Ha’penny.) In 1949, a miscarriage of justice brought about the entrenchment of the Farthing Peace between Britain and Germany, and put the smiling, fascist Mark Normanby in power as Prime Minister. Now, 11 years later, it is a matter of British policy that “undesirables” — communists, Jews, political prisoners — go to Europe to the death camps, while peace reigns under the unsleeping eye of the Watch, Britain’s secret police. And the Watch is headed by none other than our favorite detective Carmichael, pinned and compromised in every way and still struggling with his conscience.
This book is in many ways the most frightening of the three, because of the grimness and prescience of the way it sees Britain’s turn to fascism playing out 20 years after the Farthing Peace. Elvira Royston, Carmichael’s ward and a not-quite-so-empty-headed debutante, has been drilled in fascism’s tenets all her life: admire Normanby, turn in traitors, Jews are filthy and sacrifice babies. I shudder as she attends fascist torchlight rallies, complete with Jew-baiting, with a wide-eyed sense of good fun and camaraderie. I thought: of course. We have all read British books (and American, and French, I’m not picking on the English, that’s just where this book takes place) from the 1920s and ’30s that have anti-Semitic stereotypes or slurs in them. If World War II had never been fought, of course that would have been allowed to flourish; encouraged, even.
In Half a Crown, Walton lets us see that there is some resistance in Britain against Normanby and the Farthing crowd. People do what they can, even when they are afraid: some of them armed, some of them colossally misguided, some of them steadily helping others underground and away. But others think the government is not tough enough on crime, on Jews, on “undesirables.” They want more restrictions, more violence. It’s all horribly grim. The politics, the atmosphere of fear, the lines that are being drawn are all going the wrong way, and getting wronger. A “Global Peace Conference” means nuclear terror. Those who are doing right carry death in their mouths.
And then — honestly — Walton comes in with a big bunch of daisies in the last thirty pages and gives us a completely unearned ending. I will not tell you one word of what happens, so this isn’t a spoiler, and it didn’t ruin the trilogy or even the book for me, but it was completely in opposition to the tone of the rest of the trilogy. It was as if she’d typed it in from the manuscript of some other novel. Argh! Jenny warned me that this was going to happen, so I was in some way prepared for it, but I still felt my stomach sinking as I read it. Really? I thought. Really? Oh, that was disappointing. But I still want you to read these books. They were suspenseful and fascinating and often darkly funny. The entire premise, and the writing, were so convincing that I almost went to Wikipedia to look up one of the (fictional, alternate-history) organizations Walton mentioned and find out more about it. I loved the whole thing, up until the [redacted] went to the [redacted] and [redacted]. And I’m pretty sure you will, too.