Review: Still Life with Fascists trilogy, Jo Walton

Britain didn’t declare war on Germany. Instead they made peace, and Britain slid gradually into fascism. One might call the trilogy the Small Change trilogy instead, as the books are called Farthing, Ha’Penny, and Half a Crown, but I like the Still Life with Fascists title better. Each book has two narrators, one the first-person narration of a young upper-class English woman, and one the third-person narration of a morally compromised policeman called Carmichael. Don’t you love a morally compromised narrator?

The first book, Farthing, is a country house murder mystery. The so-called “Farthing set”, famed for their integral role in negotiating peace between Germany and Britain, is all together for the weekend when one of their number, high-ranking minister James Thirkie, is found dead in his bedroom. When Carmichael, the not-yet-morally-compromised-but-oh-he-will-be police inspector man, comes to investigate, he finds that suspicion is being cast upon David Kahn, the Jewish husband of Lucy Kahn (our upper-class English woman first person narrator). I loved the hell out of Farthing. I loved Carmichael and I loved Lucy and I loved the plot. Plus, Lucy? She refers to people as Athenian (which means gay), Macedonian (which means bi), and Roman (which means straight). When I discovered that she was not featured in the second book, I almost cried.

Briefly. Then I began reading Ha’Penny and found that it was interesting in its own right. In it, actress Viola Lark, one of the famous/notorious Larkin sisters (“the one who acts”) (yes, these are fictionalized Mitfords), becomes involved almost accidentally with a plot to assassinate Hitler and the Prime Minister of Britain. I won’t tell you how this works out, but I will say that Carmichael? Does not respond in a way that makes him feel good about being him. Because he’s morally compromised, yo. Morally compromised protagonists are never happy with anything they do, which is why I like them so much.

And then there was Half a Crown. Which I loved all the way through until about twenty pages from the end. I mean it’s just so grim. It’s set in 1960, and fascism has become deeply entrenched in Britain, to the point that our narrator, Elvira Royston, calls it “such fun” and eagerly attends fascist rallies. The environment in Britain is shocking to read about, because it’s so far removed from what Britain is really like, and because it’s easy to imagine it being that way if history had gone differently. This is how the best alternate history works, though, right? Moral compromising abounds! I couldn’t put the book down because everything seemed to be going all to hell, and I couldn’t imagine how things were ever going to work out. Apparently Jo Walton couldn’t either. It was a total deus ex machina ending, and it made me sad because the books deserved better.

But never mind. I will just pretend that everything ended after Elvira [REDACTED FOR SPOILER-FREE SEPTEMBER], leaving the reader to contemplate the probable collapse of Britain and ruin of every character we cared about. Because that, depressing though it would be, at least would be an ending that paid out the darkness of the rest of the books.

Oh, dear, I sound terribly grumpy. I swear, these books are worth it, even with the bad ending. The writing is wonderful, the premise feels frighteningly realistic, and the characters are a joy to read about. Just go into it with the awareness that the ending will not satisfy, and resign yourself early on to that reality, and then perhaps you will not be disappointed, as I was. Many thanks to Memory for recommending these books. I loved them! I can’t wait to read Walton’s earlier series, as well as Tooth and Claw!

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Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

House of Leaves put me in the mood for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I can’t account for because they are two wildly dissimilar books.  House of Leaves is terribly modern and American and all sort of up in your face, and Jonathan Strange is set in early nineteenth-century England (alternate England, but still) and is much with the fairies and book-learning and wry gentility.  Anyway I fetched out my convenient three-volume box set of paperbacks, and I read it starting in 2009 and finished in 2010.  There should really be a word for a book you start one year and finish the next year so go invent one!

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is all about magic coming back to England.  In the Napoleonic War times, it is widely known that there are no practical magicians in England at all, only theoretical ones who read about magic in books and don’t do any themselves.  Except that a practical magician turns up hoarding books in Yorkshire, a selfish, querulous old man called Mr. Norrell who is determined to bring magic back to England.  Good magic, which in Mr. Norrell’s opinions means nothing to do with the fairy realms and absolutely nothing to do with England’s magical, legendary king, John Uskglass.  Then a wealthy, idle young man called Jonathan Strange, in an attempt to impress the girl he wishes to marry, decides to be a magician too (and is good at it – calling him wealthy and idle gives the wrong idea about his magical abilities).  Things go on from there.  They help to defeat the French by using magic.  A slave called Stephen is helped (or persecuted) by a mysterious fairy gentleman with thistle-down hair.

The nice thing about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is it’s long?   But you don’t have to feel daunted by it, because you can probably tell in about five chapters whether it’s your sort of book or not; if not, you can stop reading; if it is, then hooray, there’s tons of it ahead!  The first five chapters – the first chapter by itself, really – gives you an excellent idea of how the book is going to go.  Some drastic things happen, but not without a lot of explanation; there are a lot of footnotes; the writing is amusing but probably won’t make you laugh out loud.  I knew straight away I was going to love it.  The footnotes don’t tend to be germane to the story, but they’re full of backstory and – I don’t know, sidestory? – and tidbits from the history of this alternate England.

I read this in early 2006, and since then I managed to forget nearly every significant plot point.  I remembered Jonathan Strange going off and becoming Wellington’s useful magician; I remembered the business with Lady Pole’s finger; I remembered whole sentences verbatim that the gentleman with the thistle-down hair says to Stephen Black.  But I had it in my mind that Childermass was the Raven King all along, and that Mr. Norrell ended up going to live with the King of England, and I’d completely forgotten whole plotlines (like the Greysteels – they showed up and I was all, who are these fools?).  Reading it again was like reading it for the first time.  A perfect book for the holidays.

Jane Yolen’s Alta books

So when I was about thirteen, I thought these books, Sister Light, Sister Dark and White Jenna were just about the best thing in the entire world.  I got them from the library after my sister gave me Dragon’s Blood for my birthday, and then I wanted to get more Jane Yolen books, and seriously, I totally loved them.  My sister made me a white sweatshirt that said Jo-an-enna in black letters, and she had a black sweatshirt that said Skada in white letters, and that’s how much I loved those books.

They are all about a girl called Jenna who lives in a Hame, a place for women – often abandoned as children – who believe in the goddess Alta.  Jenna, who has had three mothers and been orphaned thrice, is believed by some to be the prophesied queen, the Anna, who will bring about some unspecified but very important change.  Jenna is not in love with this idea.  It makes her life harder, poor little sausage.  But she carries on, defeating the appropriate foes as the prophecy suggests, and falling madly in love with a king’s son, and calling forth her dark sister, Skada, who appears at her side in the night-time, only when there is light to cast a shadow.

Anyway I just reread them, to see, and these are still quite good books.  Jane Yolen does a thing that I love, which is that she has the story itself, and then she quotes bits from the Book of Alta, and then she has bits that are legends, and you can see how these folk tales have grown out of different parts of Jenna’s story, and then she has excerpts from what she calls “The History”, which is a scholarly study of the events of the book, from a distance of many years, and it gets everything completely wrong and makes fun of the scholar Magon who is coming close to getting things right.  This is fun.  Oh, and she has songs also, which like the folk tales have grown out of the events of the story we’re reading.

In bits maybe it takes itself a smidge too seriously?  But mainly it’s an excellent story.  Jenna’s world, particularly the bits with the sisters in the Hames, is very well imagined, with lots of good details around the dark sisters and just the way the Hames function generally.  I wouldn’t have minded having more bits set in the Hames, seeing how the sisters get on with their everyday lives after they are adults, but that’s just my preference.

Also, I miss Maine.  We used to go on vacation there every summer when I was a kid, and there was (still is!) this bookshop in Wells, where we stayed, called Annie’s Book Stop, and it was great.  That’s where I got my copies of Sister Light, Sister Dark, and White Jenna.  It was a damn exciting day.  And I miss Maine.  All with the bookshops we would go to that were used, and Fun-O-Rama, and we would go to this excellent restaurant called Allison’s in Kennebunkport and we would sing “Alice’s Restaurant” only we’d call it “Allison’s Restaurant”, and the beach was all nice and the water was all cold.  That was nice.

Let me know if you’ve read these and I will link to you!  🙂

Victory of Eagles, Naomi Novik

For some reason I had it in my head that this was going to be the last of the Temeraire series.  Not really sure why I thought that – evidently Ms. Novik plans to have probably nine of them before she’s done.  She must have many, many facts in her brain to want to write so many books (even though she’s now ditched history entirely).

Yes, at this point she has abandoned real history in favor of stuff that’s more fun, which, hey, I’m completely fine with.  It would be silly to accept dragons and then complain that Napoleon had invaded London, so I have no complaints about Napoleon invading London.  Unless he starts tearing down things that I like, or doing something wicked on the area that will someday grow into the South Bank, my favorite bit of the world.

I enjoyed this book nearly as much as I did the first one.  Temeraire’s a point-of-view character now, off and on, which was fun given how cute Temeraire has always been.  He’s a mighty community organizer dragon these days, organizing the breeding ground dragons into a bunch of fighters for fighting off the wicked French armies.  It was refreshing to have everybody winning battles and having clever ideas, instead of all systems devolving into chaos, as has been the case so much in the last few books.

As much as I was looking forward to seeing Iskierska in this book, I thought she was wasted.  You saw a good bit of her, but she wasn’t really doing that much – or no, I guess what I would say is that I wanted to see her grow up and become useful and clever and do cunning things, and she really didn’t.  She was just a nuisance, requiring to be watched and rescued, and I wanted her to be a mighty fightin’ power!  Maybe in the next one.  I like her and I want her to come into her own at some point.

The books continue to be entertaining.  I continue to like them enough to reserve them at the library but not enough to actually purchase them at the store.