Short version: I recently read an alternative history trilogy by Jo Walton called Small Change. I think it’s good. Read it!
The three books of Small Change are set in an alternate Britain that signed a peace treaty with Hitler in 1941. Farthing and Ha’penny take place in 1949; Half a Crown is set in 1960. I’d heard about Farthing years ago (it was published in 2006), but I was in no real hurry to read it. I’ve had an iffy success rate with Walton’s books. I may be the only SF/F reader in the world who didn’t become a passionate fan of Among Others after reading it. I enjoyed it, but it was a kind of middling enjoyment. It was a great trip down memory lane for the books of my teenagerhood, but I kept wishing I was reading the story of Morwenna’s original fight instead the story of her recovery from it. I might not have ever have gotten around to reading another one of Walton’s books after that, but then she came up with the Necessity trilogy, and I couldn’t resist the combination of Greek gods and philosophy, all wrapped up in fiction. I loved that series enough to buy all three books in hardcover (!), but then I read My Real Children and liked it except for feeling like I was missing something obvious about the ending that I was certain everyone else understood. So, some books clicked with me and some didn’t. Farthing sounded interesting, but not pressing, and there were lots of other books to read. And then, well, November came and went, and January came and went, and things are different now, and Farthing rose to the top of my to-read list. I’m guessing I wasn’t alone in this, because there was a wait list for every book in the trilogy at my library.
As with those other books I’ve mentioned, I enjoyed Small Change unevenly (my reviews of the individual books are linked at the end of this post). Farthing hooked me straightaway and I fell into the book until the end. It’s a classic British murder-at-the-family-estate mystery, but, well, fascism. I braced myself to be disappointed with Ha’penny for no better reason than that it was the second volume of a trilogy and middles are challenging. I ended up liking it almost as much as Farthing. Although Inspector Carmichael returns as one of the protagonists, Ha’penny is more of a political thriller than a murder mystery. It takes place a mere two weeks or so after the end of Farthing, but even in that short a period, there’s been a noticeable change in atmosphere. I was more frustrated with Half a Crown. So much of the tension in the first two books comes from the reader’s (my) knowledge that this history is “wrong” and that fascism is a threat, yet the characters are innocently—naturally, believably—dealing with their immediate concerns and not seeing this other danger. Ten years later, the characters have to deal with that threat directly. I missed the structure of a foreground story (the murder mystery, the political thriller) hinting at a bigger background story. But it was still a gripping story, whatever my disagreements with it, and I did want to know how the trilogy came out.
And the above is pretty much all I was going to say. Earlier, I’d avoided most reviews because I wanted to read the books without the filter of other people’s opinions. But afterwards, I started looking around the Internet to see what other people had to say, which is when I found this, by Jo Walton: 10th November 2016: How I feel when people reference Farthing.
(I’m assuming you’ve now read it. Beyond this point, there are spoilers for the trilogy. Assorted thoughts follow.)
If there’s any book I wrote that I wish was obsolete and that people would never be reminded of in any real world context, it’s Farthing. “Gosh, that’s dated,” I wish people would say about it. It wasn’t supposed to be a prediction. It wasn’t supposed to be an instruction manual. (The actual specifics of the post-Brexit shuffle and May etc really are scarily like what I have in the book.)
As I said, I was aware of Farthing before the 2016 Presidential election, but yes, that’s what motivated me to finally read it. For what it’s worth, I’m not recommending it to other people for that reason alone. Small Change is good and would be worth reading even if Brexit, May, Trump, etc. had never happened. But I found it impossible not to think of them while reading these books, and it wasn’t the experience I would’ve had if I’d read them back in 2006-2010.
People like the tragic ends of Farthing and Ha’Penny more than (spoilers!) the positive end of Half a Crown maybe because I didn’t do it as well, and maybe I didn’t because I was going uphill against the weight of narrative expectation and that’s hard. But it’s how fascism ended in Spain, King Juan Carlos did just what I had the Queen do in the book.
I remember this about Spain, and I’ve been holding on to this memory because there aren’t that many examples of dictatorships converting to democracies, and I need to have hope as well. But Juan Carlos had been laying the groundwork for the end of fascism for years. Nor was the world fascist in the 1970s and 1980s. At the end of Half a Crown, only Britain and a few other countries are democracies. Since we’re limited to Elvira and Carmichael’s points of view, it’s hard to tell if the Queen is as well prepared as Juan Carlos. Would Nazi Germany tolerate a Britain that was returning to democracy? Even if the Farthing Peace held, there’d be tension.
But learning this helps. Even though I’m still critical of this ending, I have more context for it now. Apparently what I need is The Annotated Small Change: With Author’s Commentary, Afterthoughts, and General Notes.
Did I mention Small Change was worth reading? Go on, try it.
My reviews of Small Change: