Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Half a Crown," by Jo Walton

Principal Cast:

Inspector Carmichael: Now the Watch Commander (head of England's secret police), he does the government's dirty work - while secretly smuggling Jews out of fascist Europe. How long can he keep this up?

Elvira Royston: A lowly police sergeant's daughter whose connection to the Watch Commander has raised her to the status of debutante. Her secure status can be taken away, however, especially by the Watch Commander's enemies who want to bring Carmichael down for good.

The Word: Well ... this is awkward. Jo Walton's trilogy, which started with the brilliant Farthing, continued with the good-but-not-great Ha'Penny, has now ended with a ... splat.

Half a Crown takes place in an alternate 1960. Hitler is still alive, England is a fascist state, and life sucks for the Jews everywhere. In slightly better news, the vile Prime Minister Normanby was permanently disabled by the bombing at the end of Ha'Penny and now people are questioning his right to rule. Unfortunately, the folks doing the questioning might be even worse than Normanby is.

Meanwhile, Inspector Carmichael - the trilogy's main protagonist - is head of the Watch, England's version of the Gestapo. The nastier Powers that Be think he's firmly under their thumb, but in truth, Carmichael's been secretly using Watch resources to smuggle Jews out of Britain and Germany. Meanwhile, Carmichael's adopted niece Elvira (the daughter of his murdered partner Royston) accidentally winds up on the wrong side of a street riot and Carmichael's political enemies decide to use her as leverage to take down Carmichael.

Unlike the first two books, there isn't really a murder mystery component here. Carmichael's already got his fingers in every pie that matters just by being Watch Commander. Unfortunately, the plot meanders all over the place and is mainly about how England's plight couldn't possibly get any worse - until the end when everything magically resolves itself. Walton does too good a job demonstrating how prevalent fascism has become in England, so when the sudden ~*Happy Ending*~ appears, it makes absolutely no sense and ties up everything in the neatest and silliest bow you could possibly imagine.

If you don't mind spoilers (seriously) - Elvira asks a young Queen Elizabeth II to please make the fascists go away and to release all the Jews. And the Queen is like, "Sure, complete stranger whom I've met for the first time today, why not? Shut it down, you guys! Fascism is over!" And England's like, "Cool." An out-of-nowhere deus-ex-machina speech from a fictionalized version of a real-life monarch immediately solves all the issues that Walton's set up over three books. Really. REALLY. It's a Disneyfied ending that seems wholly out of place - and wholly unworthy of the nuanced horror setting Walton developed.

I suppose you could say she wrote herself into a corner where any positive ending would have seemed like a cheat, but it could have been accomplished far less ham-handedly than it actually was. A disappointing conclusion to an otherwise interesting series.

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