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several none-to-subtle (and very apt) comparisons to Tony Blair's Britain, where Habeas Corpus and due process have been replaced by universal surveillance and a National ID Database.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.


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