Ha'penny, haunting thriller about an alternate British Reich

Ha'penny is the sequel to Jo Walton's chilling, heartbreaking novel Farthing, an alternate history about a quisling Britain that makes peace with Hitler and helps create a stable, thousand-year Reich on the Continent. The story, a murder mystery in a Britain on the edge of fascism, made several none-to-subtle (and very apt) comparisons to Tony Blair's Britain, where Habeas Corpus and due process have been replaced by universal surveillance and a National ID Database.

Ha'penny is a thriller, not a murder-mystery, but it is otherwise the twin of Farthing. It continues the story of New Scotland Yard Inspector Carmichael, a compromised, closeted homosexual who is the pained lackey of the fascist plan to sell Britain out to the Reich. In Ha'penny, Carmichael is called on to investigate a plot to assassinate Hitler and the Prime Minister, a plot that's mixed up with the IRA, radical Lords, and a family of divided aristocratic girls, one of whom is a Communist, one of whom is married to Himmler, and one of whom is Viola Lark, a star of stage who has just been cast as Hamlet in a cross-cast production on the Strand.

Viola narrates half the book and through her eyes, we see a Britain that is credibly and horribly transformed, a Britain where fear of terrorists has driven sensible people to believe evil things, such as the need for the ubiquitous identity cards that play a key role in the oppression that is at the heart of this book.

Walton is doing amazing work here, writing a kind of latter-day 1984, a savage blast against the authoritarian opportunists who have cynically manipulated terrorist tragedies to suppress political speech and whip up fear to a high froth of CCTVs and identity papers. She is part of the artistic response to the Blair Years, and Ha'penny is a literary Guernica, a scathing indictment of New Labour and the chickenhawk War on Abstract Nouns that is its hallmark.

It doesn't hurt that this is a top-notch thriller, a page-turner of a book that had me reading it while walking down the street, eating breakfast, going to bed, anywhere I could, compelled to keep reading until I'd turned the last page. I hear there's a third in the series, and I can only pray that it brings some hope to Walton's Quisling Britain, some chance of redemption for the all-too-plausible authoritarian alternate history that is such a sharp mirror of our sad present world. Link

See also:
Farthing: Heart-rending alternate history about British-Reich peace


  1. an alternate history about a quisling Britain that makes peace with Hitler and helps create a stable, thousand-year Reich on the Continent

    Substitute “Bin Laden” or “Ahmadinejad” for “Hitler” and “Caliphate” for “Reich” and you get yet another alternate history…

  2. Sounds like a companion book to Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” which is an alternative timeline historical fiction novel where Charles Lindburgh is elected president and declares a truce with Hitler and America never enters the war.

  3. And don’t forget Ian R MacLeod’s wonderful, understated novel ‘The Summer Isles’, which posits a fascist Britain in the Thirties, and which seems to share some of the themes of Jo Walton’s book (the protagonist is gay, for example).
    MacLeod’s book is not really a thriller, but is exciting, elegiac and satisfying (and mystifyingly has only been published in a limited-edition hardback).

  4. I want to say that the cover design is great and simple, although it probably doesn’t win any subtlety points from more jaded observers. Also of note is the praise quote by the one and only Cory Doctorow. Does it mean you’ve arrived when you get published on other people’s books?

    Slightly off-topic, but I couldn’t help thinking of the Penny Farthing bikes that were the standard logo of The Prisoner TV show. I don’t know if money plays any central part in the books, and I’ve just realized that the name of the bike may come from the relative sizes of the wheels being similar to the sizes of the Penny and Farthing (1/4 penny) coins. A good picture of the coins is at the bottom of this page.

  5. It means I think that people who like Cory’s books might like Ha’penny.

    Although all of the books in question are in essence stand-alone stories, there will be one more novel in the linked sequence begun by Farthing and Ha’penny, called Half a Crown. Jo has taken to referring to the series as the “Small Change Trilogy.”

  6. How do Farthing and Ha’penny compare to SS-GB and Fatherland? They’re cozier and more English, which somehow makes them more sinister. Also, I’ve never seen works that were so precise about the ways that increasing totalitarianism gradually affects everyday living and working relationships.

  7. Does anyone know why eBook versions aren’t available? I really don’t like buying dead-tree copies of books now that I have an iLiad Reader. Seems like she’s released CC-licensed stuff before, so she’s pretty tech-savvy.

  8. Regarding similarities to ‘The Plot Against the Fatherland’, I’ve only read ‘Farthing’, but it seems that the timeline change in this world also hinges on Charles Lindburgh being elected US President. That causes the US to avoid any military engagement with Nazi Germany, continuing its isolationist stance, and leaving Britain all alone against Hitler—which sets the stage for the rest of the story.

    Great book, I’m looking forward to ‘Ha’penny’.

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