Cover image of "Ha'penny," a novel that is gripping alternate history

Alternate history is a curious branch of science fiction—or, perhaps more properly, of speculative fiction. Because the factor that limits the author’s imagination aren’t the boundaries of science but those of history itself: reality. To work, alternate history must be believable in the context of what we know of our past. In Ha’penny, the second volume of her Farthing Trilogy, accomplished British science fiction and fantasy writer Jo Walton has achieved that, and more. She has written a gripping, suspenseful novel that illuminates the past with her artful imagination.

In Farthing (reviewed here) the first book of the trilogy, Nazi Germany and England had signed a peace treaty in 1941, leaving Hitler dominant on the Continent — before the seminal events that drew the US and the USSR into the war. The “Farthing Set,” the group of right-wing aristocrats credited with ending the war, is poised on the brink of power eight years later. Farthing — combining alternate fiction with a murder mystery — tells the story of the violence that facilitated their ascent to power.

Ha’penny (Farthing Trilogy #2) by Jo Walton ★★★★★

How could this have happened in the seat of democracy? It’s not so far-fetched. “England is like a country of sleepwalkers, walking over the edge of a cliff,” Walton writes, “and has been these last eight years. You’re prosperous, you’re content, and you don’t care what’s going on the other side of the Channel as long as you can keep on having boat races and horse shows and coming up to London to see a show . . .” Is this description so far from today’s reality, when the Conservative Party, which has stubbornly kept Britain in recession for five years, has just been returned to office with its biggest victory in thirty years?

Ha’penny picks up the story shortly after the Farthing Set has settled into 10 Downing Street. The scene shifts from the country home in the village of Farthing where the first book was set to London’s theater district. There, Viola Lark, one of the six notorious Larkin sisters, has achieved stardom on the stage and is set to begin production of a production of Hamlet, with herself in the title role in the theatrical fashion of the age. Viola cares only about the theater. She’s less than indifferent to politics. But the novel tells the fascinating tale of her gradual immersion in a plot to put an end to the fascist Farthing regime that has recently risen to power.

The central characters are modeled on the real-life Mitford sisters

At the center of the story are the aristocratic Larkin sisters. They’re closely modeled on the real-life Mitford sisters, whose divergent paths through life in the 1930s, 40s, and beyond kept the English people variously entertained and enraged. The noted journalist and author Ben MacIntyre describes them as “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur.”

In truth, two of the sisters (Diana and Unity) were close to Hitler; Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley, the head of the British fascist party. Nancy and Jessica, both accomplished writers (Jessica wrote the widely acclaimed The American Way of Death pillorying the funeral industry), were also both left-leaning. Jessica, who moved to the US early in life, was a member of the American Communist Party until 1958. [I’m proud to say that I knew Jessica Mitford — she was better known as Decca — for a few years in the 1970s. She had long since settled in Berkeley with her second husband, a leftist attorney. Decca was a brilliant social critic with a wicked, non-stop sense of humor.] With such stranger-than-fiction models for her characters, Jo Walton could hardly be faulted for a too-vivid imagination in writing Ha-penny.

Jo Walton has written a total of eleven novels, one of which, a fantasy titled Among Others, won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel in 2011 and 2012. Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown form the Farthing Trilogy. They were published in 2006-2008.

For further reading

For my review of the first book in the Farthing Trilogy, see FarthingWhat if Nazi Germany had won the war?

My posts 5 top nonfiction books about World War II and 10 best alternate history novels may also interest you.

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