June 23, 2008 at 12:34 pm (Reads) ()

hapennyHa’Penny by Jo Walton


Farthing, Jo Walton’s previous book, came highly recommended. Cory Doctorow took time off from his shameless self-promotion to recommend it to reader of BoingBoing, and some other friends of mine also recommended the book, so there wasn’t much doubt that I would read the book. I was very impressed with it. It was a look at an alternate history, when the US deigned to continue its isolationism regarding the war between England and Germany, and where the political climate allowed England to slip into fascism as a way to survive. It was a chilling look at a possible past, made all the more chilling by having it end just as that declaration is made. It never took us to the point where we saw it, but only suggested at how it would be. It was like a good horror story in that respect, since the author suggested more than she showed us.

Ha’Penny is the sequel to Farthing, and as excited as I was to see that the author chose to continue the story, I was also hesitant, wondering if by taking us eight years further into that alternate history, the author would ruin the atmosphere of the previous book. Luckily, Ms. Walton is a talented author, and she pulled it off with grace. Instead of illustrating how a country can slip into fascism as easily as slipping on a pair of shoes, she illustrates how a country continues its fall, with blinders on, and denying the reality as often as possible.

At its heart, Ha’Penny is a suspense story, since you’ll inevitably be caught up in the main plot of a group of revolutionaries attempting to bomb Hitler and the Prime Minister of England in an attempt to end the fascism. This is perfectly reasonable, since you’ll likely wonder if they’re going to be able to pull it off. But underlying it all is an all-too-human look at living in a fascist state. People hear the rumors of the work camps in Germany, but dismiss it as counter-propaganda. It’s perfectly reasonable to hold a grudge against the Jews, and to ask any one at any time for their papers. It’s also normal for anyone outside of the group in command to wonder if he, too, may be the next to suffer persecution. That a mystery-suspense story is going on over all of this theme just makes it seem more normal, more human.

If you haven’t read Farthing, you should. It’s an extraordinary work, made all the more impressive due to its subtlety. Ha’Penny loses a touch of the subtlety, but not at the price of the story or the theme. I wouldn’t be surprised if the story concluded with a third novel, as there are a number of ends that, while not loose, are certainly a little frayed, suggesting that the story isn’t quite over yet. This is definitely a good thing, as Ms. Walton has proven herself to be the good hands to guide the story.

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