Book Review: The 'Small Change' Series by Jo Walton
Review by Susan Grigsby Life is complicated.
The older I get, the clearer that becomes. Sadly, everything else becomes less clear. Distinctions between good and bad, success and failure—they all get a little muddied. It becomes more difficult to determine where and when to draw the line in the sand, and how firmly one must stand by it.
Within 45 days of the 9/11 attacks, Congress had passed the Patriot Act. Perfectly timed, this single piece of legislation did more to send the US down the path to fascism than any other in our history. Except perhaps the Alien & Sedition Acts, passed when, as a nation, we were very young.
No one seemed to care. Yes, a small group of people who actually pay attention to politics and its intersection with justice were aware of the hazards in the Act, but most Americans really didn't care. They wanted to be safe again, and were willing to pay any price for that sense of security. Even though that security was as false as a three dollar bill.
There is something fitting about discussing Jo Walton's Small Change trilogy the day that the Patriot Act expired. Oh, Congress will no doubt find a more hidden way to pass the same onerous intrusions into our civil liberty and assign it some other Orwellian title, but for today, we are just a little bit freer than we were yesterday.
In the world of the Small Change trilogy, a small group of smart, influential politicians worked with Hitler to bring about what became known as the Farthing Peace, also known as Peace With Honor. The peace agreement was acceptable to the Britons because they really did stand alone against Germany in 1941 when the treaty was signed, as in this world America stayed out of the war and refused any support to either side.
By 1949, when the trilogy begins, Charles Lindbergh is America's isolationist President, Hitler is focusing on beating the Russians, and the British are getting on with their lives, which don't look so very different than they did before the war began. If they were upper class, say the top 1% or so. The middle class was allowed to hang on to their illusions of a free society a little longer, but the undesirables knew that they had a target on their backs, even if it wasn't in the shape of a varicolored star.
Eight years after the negotiated peace, there is a weekend house party at Farthing House, the country manor of Lord Eversely a member of the Farthing Set, the group of authoritarian politicians whose appeasement of Hitler led to the Farthing Peace.
One of the main architects of the peace and possible next Prime Minister, Sir James Thirkie, is found murdered during the weekend. On his chest is a yellow star of David, the use of which by Jews is not yet required in Britain, but is mandatory in Europe.
There is only one Jew at the house party that week-end, David Kahn, the son-in-law of Lord Eversely. Married to the daughter of the house, David and Lucy were both surprised at the invitation to the manor; it was the first that they had received from her parents who were openly anti-Semitic. As were most upper-class Britons. We are introduced to the manor and the characters by Lucy Kahn, a somewhat dis-engaged daughter of the 1 percent, paying attention to the struggles of others only when they directly affect her life.
Her first-person narration alternates with the third person perspective of the Scotland Yard Inspector, Peter Carmichael, who has been sent from London to solve this politically charged murder. Carmichael suspects that the Star of David was deliberately used to point suspicion at David Kahn and begins to look for other motivations even as the pressure to arrest David mounts.
And like any other good, country-house-manner murder mystery, there are plenty of other suspects and red herrings.
Picking up some weeks after the events in Farthing, Inspector Carmichael is assigned the investigation of a bombing in a London suburb. The Farthing Set has gained control at Whitehall, and restricted voting rights to the university educated and other upper class members of the society, leaving out the middle and lower classes. Jews, homosexuals, Communists and other undesirables are quietly being sent to the Continent when a visit to London by Hitler is planned. Carmichael is to determine if the bombing is an act of political terrorism.
Our alternate narrator in this novel is Viola Lark, one of the six notorious Larkin sisters, based loosely on the real life Mitford sisters. An apolitical actress, Viola finds herself drawn into a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister and the Führer during a performance of Hamlet in which she has the starring role.
Inspector Carmichael has been compromised by his superiors' knowledge of his homosexuality, putting at risk the man he loves, Jim, who has been acting as his houseman for years. So watching the cat and mouse games he must play with Viola and the gang behind her efforts, is given an added depth as the reader knows that he hates the regime he is forced to uphold.
By 1960, a few changes have been made, and those discretely managed, so as not to be noticed by most of the Britons who make up the citizenry of the fascist state. And almost unnoticed is a generation of young people who have grown up under the dictatorship.
One of those, our first person narrator, is Elvira Royston, ward of Peter Carmichael, who is preparing for her presentation to the Queen as an eighteen-year-old debutante. Interested in furthering her education at Oxford, she is as concerned with clothes and make-up as any other 18 year old, and freely accepts an invitation to an anti-Semitic political rally, feeling that fascism is "the most terrific fun."
The other narrator is Peter Carmichael who has now risen to become the Commander of the Watch, Britain's very own Gestapo. The Watch listens to private conversations in order to find any hidden Jews, communists and/or other undesirables. Carmichael uses the information he gathers to conduct an underground railway for as many of these as he can save.
It is a fitting finale to the series, as we watch the realization of what has become of their nation slowly dawn on those who have never known anything else through the eyes of Carmichael's ward. Elvira's encounters with the Metropolitan police seem far-fetched, at least until you read a current newspaper, but clearly lead to that awakening. What she does with her new-found knowledge is something you will have to read the books to find out. Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.