In hindsight, I was much too hard on Jo Walton's Farthing, an alternate history novel where Britain and Germany make a peace agreement after the panicked British retreat from the European mainland during Hitler's invasion of France. My opinion of the novel hasn't changed, but it was a combination of one of my favorite authors hitting me over the head with her message and the surprisingly weak characters that shocked me. Couple that with blurbs that overly emphasized the points Walton was obviously trying to make. I have come to terms with that, however, and may reread it some day. In the meantime, I picked up the second book in the series, Ha'penny and enjoyed it a lot more.
It's a few months after the events of Farthing, and Chief Inspector Carmichael still feels the effects of that case. His superiors know his gay secret, and that he will help them cover things up if need be to protect that secret. Carmichael is assigned the investigation of an explosion at the home of a famous actress, and it turns out that perhaps the actress and a compatriot were building the bomb when it went off accidentally. Another actress, Viola Larkin (her stage name is "Lark"), is caught up in a whirlwind of events not of her own choosing. Family members get her involved in a plot to set a bomb at her theater when Hitler and the Fascist Prime Minister of Britain attend to see “Hamlet”. While Viola is reluctant to do so, she becomes less so the more she learns about what's really going on in both Germany and Britain. And Carmichael must race against time to get to the bottom of the plot even as his superiors want it wrapped up in a nice little bow.
Many of Farthing’s shortcomings rear their ugly heads in Ha'penny, but they are muted. The message of the series is definitely put right there in front of you, but it's not so painfully done (with one or two exceptions) – there’s no mallet to the head this time. While Carmichael still remains a wonderfully interesting character, this time the flip side of the story isn't quite as dull. Viola is a remarkably vapid character, but that's the point Walton is trying to make: that too many people just don't care about politics, wrapped up in their consumer and popular culture and letting things run wild. That's actually something I can agree with, though I doubt I would share the same destination of that feeling as Walton.
That doesn't make her any more interesting to read about, and I found some of her scenes truly unbelievable. I know some women are extremely attracted to rogue men who treat them roughly, but Viola's relationship with the Irish bomber Devlin strains suspension of disbelief. She is trapped by her situation and the conspirators will kill her if she doesn't agree to help them, but this man basically demands she have sex with him, cook their dinner, and clean up the kitchen - and sometime amid all that, she's supposed to learn the lines of the lead character in “Hamlet”? And she likes this? This storyline is told by her in first person, so you’d think there would be some indication if she didn't. She seems to, even if she realizes that she shouldn't like it.
The Carmichael side of the story saves the day. Carmichael is simply fascinating, a man trapped by his own circumstances, hating himself for the situation he has gotten himself into yet still able to be likeable. He knows his partner sold him out but he can't bring himself to hold it against Royston, and their relationship is fun to read about. I didn't like his lover as much; he complains that Carmichael doesn't take him out in public even though he knows that doing so would completely cut off Carmichael's source of income, and thereby his own. I can understand complaints like "I wish we could…" but these complaints seem more directed at Carmichael rather than bemoaning the state of society and gay people's place in it.
In the same manner as Farthing, Ha'penny is told in alternating storylines, Viola's in first person and Carmichael's in third. It can be jarring at first, but you get used to it, and in several instances Walton uses it to great effect, showing a scene from both viewpoints. Walton's excellent prose exudes that post-war England feel and the foreboding of the government’s creeping Fascism. She definitely has a way with description, as on page 178 of the paperback:
"He was smiling now as if someone had issued him a smile and told him to wear it along with the eagles and creased pants."
It helps the evil factor that there are actually live Nazis this time around, illustrating even more how far the British government is taking things. In the scenes that include Hitler, she avoids the monstrous stereotype, instead capturing how charming the man could be, until you realize what he has done. Rumors of the death camps are reaching England, and while Viola is briefly brought under Hitler's spell when she first meets him, the news from the continent dispels all that.
Ha'penny succeeds where its predecessor failed mainly because Walton has lightened the book to make it more palatable to those who don't necessarily agree with her. This time around, it’s possible to understand what she's saying, disagree with it, and go on enjoying the book for the story. With a few eye-rolling exceptions, I didn't feel like I was being lectured to. That allowed me to lose myself in the story and not come up again until it was finished. I'm greatly looking forward to the next book, and I hope Walton keeps the upward progress this book has initiated.