I was so happy to read Jo Walton's Half a Crown, the final chapter of her “Farthing” trilogy taking place in an alternate history where Britain and Germany made peace rather than continuing their war, and now Britain is slowly descending into a Fascist state. I really disliked the Farthing and liked (but not loved) its sequel, Ha’penny. This time around, Walton succeeds in almost every way, with only a too heavy-handed finale marring an otherwise wonderful book.
It's 1960, and former Chief Inspector Carmichael is now head of the Watch, an organization charged with protecting the realm from all seditious activity, as well as ridding the country of Jews and other malcontents. The prevailing attitude toward Jews mirrors that of Nazi Germany, and many of them have been sent to the Continent. Carmichael has formed an "Inner Watch" within the organization that has succeeded over the years in smuggling many Jews out of the country, but things are beginning to spin out of control. There are rumblings of a "British Power" movement, a fascist organization wishing to remove German influence from British politics - not because they disagree with Germany, but they don't want Britain play the toady anymore. Carmichael's debutante ward, Elvira Royston, is scheduled to come out in the next week, but she gets mixed up with a member of the nobility who has ties to the movement. Carmichael's enemies see her as a chance to get at him, and all of his secrets may be revealed.
Throughout the series, even the first book, I've always enjoyed Carmichael. He's an intelligent and dedicated man whose superiors have trapped him in a hopeless situation. He's gay, they know it, and they hold that over him because coming out of the closet would destroy everything he holds dear. He's managed to keep the secret from Elvira for many years since he took custody of her after his partner's (her father) death ten years ago. Walton put Carmichael through the wringer to see how he deals with the various blows that come his way. Given the way the book ends, I would love to see the further adventures of Carmichael, but Walton says this is the last one (it quite obviously is, given the way she ends the novel).
What makes Half a Crown even better than Ha’penny, though, is the fact that the other main protagonist is actually interesting and not stupid. Elvira is young and innocent, not knowing any better sometimes, but she's smart and I never questioned anything that she did. She the product of a society that has for twenty years been under a Fascist boot, feeling safe and secure, never really knowing the truth about the Jews who live in the country and what happens to them when they disappear. She's swept up in the events surrounding the British Power movement and the attempts to bring down Carmichael, and she doesn't know what to do.
Things in Britain have gotten so bad that there's little comparison to be made with the real world, but through Walton’s tense, gripping prose, I was able to lose myself in the story and wonder how she would get her characters out of this predicament. The only eye-roller is the rather convenient twist that brings everything to a head and a little bit of modern-day speechifying that grated on my nerves a bit. Thankfully, since the book isn't as full of such passages as previous books were, they are a lot easier to swallow this time.
Half a Crown is a page-turner, and I actually did stay up too late a few nights to read "just one more chapter." Once again, Walton alternates between Carmichael’s third-person viewpoint and the first-person view of her other protagonist. This yields the added effect of getting inside Elvira's head and seeing her slow realization that things are much worse in the country than she could ever have believed. Thus each chapter (especially later in the novel) is a cliffhanger of sorts.
Walton goes out on a high note for this series, and I look forward to her next novel. Hopefully politics will be left by the wayside so I can revel in her gorgeous prose, wonderful plotting, and great characterization skills. I couldn't do that very often with this series. Still, if you are more in agreement with her ideologically than I am, this won't bother you and you can enjoy the series a lot more than I did.