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Heil Britannia

Jo Walton Images a World Where The UK Negotiated An Armistice With Germany in 1941

Daniel Krall

By Adrienne Martini | Posted 12/12/2007

Farthing, 2006; Ha'Penny, 2007

By Jo Walton

Tor Books

Perhaps the best magic that speculative fiction can perform is a slight of hand that lets you see reality as it truly is, despite the fact that the genre is mostly concerned building realities that don't exist. It's a delicate trick that's easy to arse up. But when it's done with panache and skill, the magic of misdirection helps the medicine go down.

Jo Walton's 2006 Farthing and 2007 Ha'Penny (both published by Tor Books) show an illusionist working at the height of her powers. These first entries in her "Small Change" series, which she has also jokingly called "Still Life with Fascists," cunningly change history with one simple question: What if the British had brokered a truce with Hitler in 1941? From there, Walton has firm footing on which to perform her show.

Alternate histories are nothing new in the genre. In fact, an interested editor could assemble several volumes with the stories that have the South winning the Civil War. Most read like programming on the History Channel which is endless repetitions of facts that prove how much the writer knows about the period while giving the barest nod to conventions of storytelling such as plot and character. Add the voice of a ponderous narrator and you've got a bestseller on your shelves.

Walton takes a more subtle approach. The history and her extrapolations on the "what if?" are set dressing, rather than the entire show. Farthing starts like a good P.G. Wodehouse Blanding's yarn, complete with a murder mystery, an English country house, a flighty heroine, and a crusty Scotland Yard inspector. Walton uses two narrators --Lucy, the daughter of the manse who is married to a Jew, and Inspector Carmichael, the cop who has a compromising secret of his own--to set the book's tensions quickly. After the story's first third, it becomes clear that Farthing won't end in a frothy farcical romp, unless you find fascism frothy.

Which isn't to imply that Farthing is about politics or history. It is, mind you, but only in how the outside world impinges on individual lives. Farthing is as much about sex and marriage as it is about Hitler and the Holocaust. And it's as much about Bush and Blair as it is about World War II.

"The Communist Party, along with its newspapers, was to be outright banned. The Labour Party was to be checked by M15 for secret Communist `sleepers' that might have infiltrated their ranks. The line taken was that the innocent had nothing to fear. Nobody protested in Parliament at this, probably because they were all too afraid," Lucy explains. Depending on your level of cynicism about our current administration, the words "Terrorist" or "Liberal" can be inserted at will.

Ha'Penny picks up shortly after the events at the Farthing estate play out. Cop Carmichael remains, as does the convention of two narrators. Viola, an actress, steps in for Lucy and offers a considerably different side of life under a government that remains in power by instilling fear in its citizens. But where Farthing was front-loaded with action--a dead body is found at the outset--Ha'Penny's real action comes at its end. Because of this, Ha'Penny feels more introspective than Farthing did, as the two narrators do less and think more.

Walton's skill, however, saves such ruminations from bogging down in excessive navel gazing. She works in subplots involving former IRA agents, a ditzy socialite or two, two gay military men, and Hitler while never once making you doubt the veracity of the world she's created. Perhaps most telling is that you want both narrators to succeed, despite the knowledge that one wants to kill four people and the other will betray the innocent in order to save his own reputation.

Her rich fictions are compulsively readable only for their characters and plots. But it's her observations about power that make both hard to put down. "[Carmichael] had learned from the Farthing Set that you couldn't just change things from the outside, you had to change how people felt. If people stopped being afraid, they'd get rid of the dictators for themselves," she writes in Ha'Penny, and it becomes clear what her larger mission is.

Rather than change one outcome in order to distill history into bite-sized chunks that make for easy consumption, Walton compresses it into a series of hard choices that illuminate what it feels like to live against such backdrops. Who knows what magic she'll pull out of her hat when the next book, Half a Crown, is released next year. H

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