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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