Completed 6/19/2020, Reviewed 6/19/2020
I had only read three books by Jo Walton, but she was one of my favorite authors. It seemed she could do no wrong. This book confirms that for me. It was terrific, a powerful tour de force, and it’s only the first book in the Small Change trilogy. It takes place in an alternative 1949 England where the country has made peace with the Nazi empire that won World War II and occupies continental Europe. There is extreme prejudice against the Jews in England and a fascist regime seems to be on the horizon. It’s a very appropriate read for what’s happening in the U.S. today, the whole “it can’t happen here” mentality as echoes of fascism creep into the government. It affected me intensely and I could barely put the book down to sleep last night. This book was nominated for multiple awards including the Nebula in 2006.
The story begins on a manor in England where a wealthy family is having a large party. The family is part of a political force, the Farthing Set, that is on the verge of coming into power in the government. Overnight, one of the guests, the Minister of Education, and possible future Chancellor is murdered. Scotland Yard is called in, and it appears that David Kahn, the Jewish husband of the daughter of the family may be the killer. However, Peter Carmichael, the inspector, believes it is a setup, as does Lucy, David’s wife, and that the real killer is one of the Farthing Set themselves. The race is on to figure out who the real killer is before David is found guilty by the mere fact that he is a Jew who was at the party.
The book is basically a murder mystery. The evidence points to David, but it is all way to obvious. No murderer would leave behind the clues that are found at the murder site. Fortunately, Inspector Peter is on the ball, trying to put other discrepancies together to find out who the real killer is. But underneath the murder mystery is the frightening reality of England turning into an anti-Semitic clone of Nazi Germany. It makes for a gripping, frightening read.
The book is told in chapters alternating between first person Lucy and third person Inspector Peter. It is a very effective way to follow both the insider’s view of what’s going on and the outsider’s coming to understand it. The insider’s view begins very British-ly. It’s all high-brow manners and politics. Nobody says anything outright; it’s all gossip, innuendo, and the occasional caustic remark. Although in the case of Lucy’s mother, who hates that David is Jewish, the remarks are more than occasional. There is also the potential for scandal in that some of the characters are gay, lesbian, and bisexual, all of which in 1949 England is illegal.
The character development is very well done. Even the minor characters are really well-drawn. They may be stereotypically British, but they are not just cardboard cutouts. Inspector Peter is awesome as the detective who knows something else is going on. He hates the rise of anti-Semitism that’s taking over England, identifying with the Jews as he has his own secrets to hide from the government. I thought Lucy was going to be irritating as a narrator. In the beginning, she’s very focused on manners, as are everyone else in the Farthing Set. But as the murder mystery unfolds, implicating David, she turns out to have quite a good head on her shoulders.
I give this book five stars out of five. It starts out very four-star, with excellent writing and wonderful prose. But as the book progressed, I was deeply affected by the rise of the fascists and the danger to David and Lucy. It was powerful and horrific. I couldn’t shake the terrible feelings I had with the ending, finishing the book right before my yoga class, making my practice rather a rather difficult one. I’m going to read the rest of the trilogy, but I’m going to intersperse it with other books to give myself a break from its intensity. So I guess it’s kind of a warning. If you decide to read this book, be prepared for something akin to the rise of power of the Nazis in Germany, but with a British bent. It’s a quick read, but not an easy one.