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!

Review: The White Road, Lynn Flewelling

Two things I enjoy in fantasy books: Chicanery.  And political machinations.  Preferably at the same time, like when people use their wits to effect the toppling of regimes or noble houses.  I have no particular books in mind when I mention this, of course, although now that I mention it, I do seem to recall that there is a series of books by one Megan Whalen Turner that possess both of these elements.  IN SPADES.

Two things I tend not to enjoy in fantasy books: Lots of made-up words.  And fuzzy-edged pseudo-mystic religions.  And look, it hurts me to say this more than I can tell you, but Lynn Flewelling’s newest Nightrunners book, The White Road, has fewer of the enjoyable two things, and more of the less enjoyable two.  Moreover, it has a creepy little critter in it.  I don’t like creepy little critters, and I have a hard time believing that any of the characters would like them either, ALEC.

Alec and Seregil are dealing with the fallout from Shadows Return, trying to decide what’s to be done with the creepy little critter made from Alec’s blood.  Alec’s people, a weird and violent branch of the Aurenfaie, are trying to track it down themselves, for what reason we don’t necessarily know; and an old enemy of Seregil’s, Ulan, wants the books that explain how the critter was made, plus of course the critter itself.  Altogether too much focus on the creepy little critter.

As ever, you do not necessarily want to read a very good book (or series of books) of a particular kind, and then read another book with the expectation that it will be similar.  That way madness lies, bloggy friends.  I was going back and forth between reading The White Road and rereading The Thief.  (I know, I just read it.  But I felt like I would appreciate A Conspiracy of Kings more if I read the first three books again; and besides, I felt like reading them over again.)  I do not recommend this as a means of gaining maximum enjoyment from The White Road.

I like the Nightrunner books, and I enjoyed the book that came before this one, but I feel like Alec and Seregil have gotten too far from their roots.  At this point, we are hearing far more about their brilliance in secrecy and spying and crafty escapes than we’re seeing.  They’re spies and thieves!  I yearn to see them doing some successful spying and thieving!  I’m mad for spying and thieving, particularly when they are spying and thieving for political reasons.  Lynn Flewelling, I recall from Traitor’s Moon and the Oracle’s Queen books, manages political machinations very nicely.  You know, where there are questions of succession, and warring factions of nobles, and sneaky dudes born on the wrong side of the blanket, and y’all, the phrase “the wrong side of the blanket” – more of that, please.

In short, Alec and Seregil have spent the last two books being reactive rather than active, and I’m ready for them to make some independent decisions about what they want to be doing.  And I would like those decisions to send them in the direction of bringing down corrupt regimes.  They can do it in Skala if that’s what they’re feeling (probably not, at this point), or they can do it in Bokthersa.  I do not mind either way.  I like the word machinations, and I really cannot have enough opportunities to use it.

If you are a fantasy-lover, what things do you like to see in your fantasy?  Dragons, social allegory, ragtag bands of rebels, tall elves, short elves, gender issues?  And what do you wish the genre has played to death and might consider steering clear of for a while?