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by Jo Walton
Tor, September 2008
320 pages
ISBN: 0765316218

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HALF A CROWN concludes Jo Walton's political history of the rise of fascism in an alternative Britain that concluded a peace treaty with Germany in 1940, ending the threat of invasion and freeing Germany to pursue the war against the Soviet Union. The first two novels are set in 1948 and deal in the first instance with the events that brought Prime Minister Normanby to power and confirmed the general drift in the direction of the abrogation of traditional civil liberties. The second centres on a plot to assassinate Hitler, the revelation of which accelerates and confirms that loss of freedoms.

Now, in the third of the set, ten years have passed. Police inspector Peter Carmichael, the main character of the previous novels, is now commander of the Watch, Britain's Gestapo. Carmichael was hopelessly compromised years earlier by Normanby's threat to expose his homosexual relationship with his "valet" Jack; now he fears that both will lose their lives if he fails to do Normanby's bidding. His major task as the book opens is overseeing security for yet another visit by Hitler to attend a peace conference aimed at carving up spheres of influence in the world, now that the Soviet Union has finally been defeated, thanks to atomic weapons. He is also engaged in a clandestine operation to spirit Jews and "terrorists" out of harm's way when possible, which salves his conscience to a certain degree.

Like the previous novels, this one alternates between the third person narrative describing Carmichael's activities with a first person narration in the voice of a young girl, in this case, Elvira, the daughter of Carmichael's deceased colleague and now his ward. Elvira is quite a bit younger than either of the previous two narrators and even more naive. Just eighteen, she is about to be presented at court and has grown up never questioning the world around her. She finds fascism the "most terrific fun," blindly accepting the anti-Semitic characterizations of the Jews that she hears daily as a matter of simple fact.

In this, of course, she is like the average citizen of this alternative Britain, the social mores of which Walton lovingly details. She imagines a world in which social change ceased to occur in 1940, indeed one which retrogressed to a condition even more class-ridden, if such be possible, than England before the Great War. So richly imagined is this setting that I found myself complimenting Walton on her research until I recalled that this was, after all, pure invention.

But regrettably all goes wrong in the final quarter of the book. There is a marvellously complex plot, great suspense, a thrilling pursuit, all of which ends in....Well, of course, I can't reveal how it all ends except to say that Walton seems to shrink from the implications of her own imaginings. The reader who has faithfully followed the series to its conclusion will probably have expected almost any other outcome than what we get and will experience a degree of deflation that is really unfortunate.

On her acknowledgements page at the beginning of the book, Walton confesses to being "a very hopeful and optimistic person," admirable qualities in a human being, no doubt, but perhaps a bit of a handicap for the author of an extended, and possible, political nightmare.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, January 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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