Jo Walton finds the present in an alternate history of the past

Half a Crown is alternate history by Jo Walton.

Alternate history can illuminate the present. Recently I reviewed the first two books in Jo Walton’s alternate history of England after World War II, the Farthing Trilogy, Farthing and Ha’penny. I found them to be both intriguing from an historical perspective and adeptly written as novels of suspense. Half a Crown, the concluding volume, is less satisfying, if only because the ending is contrived and entirely too neat. I expected better.

The premise of the Farthing Trilogy is disturbingly realistic: that Germany and England signed a peace agreement in the spring of 1941, before Hitler’s invasion of the USSR and the US entry into the war. Had it not been for Winston Churchill’s ability to bolster British morale, and the skill that Franklin Roosevelt displayed in steering aid to Great Britain while keeping America neutral, it’s not entirely far-fetched to imagine a scenario like the one in these novels.

Half a Crown (Farthing Trilogy #3) by Jo Walton @@@ (3 out of 5)

In each of the first two books in the trilogy, the protagonist is a young woman from a famous aristocratic family who rebels against the strictures of her family and her caste. In Half a Crown, Elvira Royston is a clever young woman who has been adopted by lesser aristocrats and has learned to conceal her Cockney background. Each of these three comes face to face with the evil of England’s steady shift toward fascism and plays a pivotal role in resisting it. All three books work well both as thrillers and as speculation about an alternate past.

At eighteen, Elvira is preparing for her debut with the Queen along with Betsy Maynard, the natural daughter of the family that has taken her in. Both are preoccupied with dresses, dances, and boys, with no room for concern about politics. Then a handsome young man, Sir Alan Bellingham, the scion of a wealthy family and a dedicated fascist, persuades the two to join him at a pro-Government rally “for fun.” There, a riot breaks out. Nine people are killed, Betsy is wounded, and Elvira is dragged off to jail by unsympathetic and brutal police. Elvira manages to free herself from their clutches because she has an ace up her sleeve: her “Uncle Carmichael” is the head of the Watch, England’s Gestapo. And Carmichael, introduced in Farthing as a homicide inspector at New New Scotland Yard whose sidekick was Elvira’s late father, is both a closeted gay and a passionate anti-fascist who uses his position to smuggle thousands of Jews out of Britain.

What is most engaging about the Farthing Trilogy is its portrayal of the ease with which England slips into fascism, anti-Semitism, and official brutality. Given the rise of anti-immigrant movements in England (and all across the Continent), and the emergence of a rigid and intolerant Right in the US, it’s not difficult to imagine how this might have come about. When democracy comes under pressure, government creates scapegoats for its failures (Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, immigrants), begins the march toward totalitarianism (mass surveillance in the US, ubiquitous CCTV cameras in England), and edges ever closer to a complete rejection of the values on which its Constitution is based.

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