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Ha'Penny    by Jo Walton order for
by Jo Walton
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2007 (2007)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Jo Walton's Ha'Penny follows her superb and sinister Farthing in an alternate (fascist) post-WW II Great Britain. In this altered version of history, after the United States declined to get involved in the war, the English government negotiated the Farthing Peace with Hitler's regime, turning a blind eye to the ongoing genocide in his European death camps in return for peace in our time.

After supporting the official lies about the events of Farthing - engineered by those in power to trigger a societal reaction that would support restriction of civil liberties - homosexual Scotland Yard investigator Inspector Carmichael feels that he has sold his soul to the devil. Essentially, he compromised his principles to keep his job and protect his partner Jack, who poses as his servant in their home and is perpetually unhappy about the need to keep their relationship secret. By the end of this episode, Carmichael has made yet another very disturbing compromise.

As Ha'Penny opens, Viola Lark - who has turned away from life as a peer's daughter to pursue an acting career - is offered the role of a lifetime. She's approached by 'one of London's best known actor managers' to play Shakespeare's Hamlet, 'daughter and heir to Denmark' (cross-cast productions are currently in vogue). Immediately after she accepts the part, she learns that renowned actress Lauria Gilmore is dead, after a bomb blast destroyed her home. Of course, Carmichael ends up heading the subsequent investigation, whose trail soon leads him to hints of a conspiracy.

Viola is one of six eccentric Larkin sisters, whose odd and neglectful upbringing has led to various forms of rebellion. One is married to Himmler, another to a duke. One went to Oxford and was killed in the Blitz, one is a communist and another is a painter married to 'that atom man'. Viola's life changes after she agrees to her communist sister Siddy's appeal for help and attends a meeting at Uncle Phil's mansion, where she's asked to participate in a plot against the government, her new play being the thing that will provide the venue for its execution.

Though the somewhat flighty Viola has little interest in politics, she's given no choice - she can agree or be quietly killed by these ruthless freedom fighters. She's now accompanied everywhere by Irish Devlin Connelly, who becomes her lover. As Viola learns more about what has been going on, she evolves from a reluctant rebel to a wholehearted one. But as the comspirators' plans firm up, so does Carmichael's investigation leading to a race against time. And, as in Farthing, the author gives us no easy or trite ending but rather a realistic one.

What's most disturbing about this excellent alternate history series is the underlying sense of there but for fortune go I. Not only might this have been our true history, but it also exposes many of the I'm all right Jack attitudes and realities of political powermongering that plague us still today. Jo Walton has been on my must read list for some time, but this poignant and worrying series has propelled her close to the top.

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