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Half a Crown    by Jo Walton order for
Half a Crown
by Jo Walton
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2008 (2008)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Half a Crown concludes the alternate world historical fantasy that has won Jo Walton well-deserved acclaim in its first two episodes, Farthing and Ha'Penny. Though Walton's world diverges from our own history, her themes are universal ones, and her messages strike uneasy modern consciences just as hard as they hit her protagonists. The books are set in an England where, after the initial fighting in World War II, the upper-crust Farthing set took control from Churchill and came to terms with Hitler, leaving him to continue his death camps in Europe - and even helping to fill them - with peace in our time in exchange.

Walton shows how this initial compromise with evil leads her society down a slippery slope, deeper and deeper into the fascist mire. Individuals fight back, including Lucy Kahn who's a member of an upper crust family but married to a Jew, in Farthing; and peer's daughter/actress Viola Lark who joins a plot to bomb Hitler in Ha'Penny. A major player in all three episodes is Inspector Carmichael, an astute policeman (and secret homosexual) whose sympathies are with the rebels but who feels that he has sold his soul to the devil by acting for the government. Crippled (from the explosion in Ha'Penny) Prime Minister Mark Normanby forced Carmichael to head a British Gestapo, the Watch, with threats against his lover Jack, who pretends to be Carmichael's manservant.

Watch Commander Carmichael salves his uneasy conscience about his new role by running a parallel Inner Watch (with the help of a Jewish subordinate) to smuggle out of the country as many people as possible, who would otherwise be sent to European death camps. Carmichael's friend and associate, Sergeant Royston, died in Farthing. Since then, he has taken Royston's working class daughter Elvira as his ward and sent her to private schools, alongside scions of the aristocracy. Now she is eighteen, he has arranged for the Maynards to bring her out, along with their debutante daughter, her best friend Betsy. Though she tolerates this, Elvira plans to go to Oxford in six months and begin her real life.

The trouble begins when Betsy's suitor Alan Bellingham invites Betsy and Elvira to attend a fascist rally with him. When the rally turns into a riot, Elvira is separated from the others and swept up into police custody. Though her uncle Carmichael has her released as soon as he finds out, the New Scotland Yard Chief-Inspector exploits her arrest in an attempt to undermine the Watch Commander. As the plot against Carmichael thickens, general unrest and opposition to Normanby spreads across the country. When Elvira is arrested again and the noose tightens around Carmichael himself, help - and the opportunity to make a difference - comes to them both from surprising sources.

At the beginning of Half a Crown, Jo Walton quotes Benjamin Franklin saying: 'Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.' This sums up Carmichael's situation through the series very well, and is equally relevant to the modern western world. Fantasy fan or not, if you have any concern for civil liberties and haven't read Half a Crown and its predecessors yet, you really should - and soon.

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