I didn’t love Jo Walton’s Farthing: in my brief review at GoodReads I admired the ingenuity of the premise and the “nice economy” of Walton’s development of her alternative history, but I thought the mystery itself wasn’t very interesting, and that it lined up too neatly with the predictions you would readily make about a crime story set in a Britain that has made peace with Hitler. But I know a lot of people who are big fans of Walton’s work, and “not loving” is not at all the same as “not liking at all,” so I thought I’d have a go at Ha’Penny, the second in the “Small Change” series.
And, again, I find myself a bit let down. It too is neatly executed, but again it felt obvious — not so much in the details of the plot, but in the larger story it’s telling us about the creeping moral paralysis of appeasement and the evils of tyranny. It is certainly possible in theory to introduce moral complexity into a novel about a plan to blow up Hitler, but I didn’t find any here, except, I guess, for the structural irony Inspector Carmichael recognizes at the end — that by doing his job as an officer of the law, he has preserved the very devil’s bargain under which so many (himself included) are suffering. But that’s not particularly subtle, and neither are the lessons our narrator Viola gets from the man fondly coercing her into violent resistance. “I don’t know if you’ll understand,” he says, with condescension that, unhappily, Viola deserves,
but there’s a thing it’s hard to give a name. It’s what we fought for in Ireland when you wouldn’t give it to us, and it’s what’s been lost on the Continent — I could call it freedom, or self-determination, but that’s too abstract. It’s the idea that one man’s as good as the next, before the law, whoever he is. It’s the idea behind the French Revolution, but it’s lost now in France, where old Petain licks Hitler’s boots. It’s the idea that built America, but they’re too frightened over there now even to elect old Joe Kennedy instead of Lindbergh with his talk of keeping down the Jews and the blacks.
“This isn’t going in, is it, love?” he asks Viola, who replies, “I don’t know . . . I do care about individual liberty. . . . But I don’t think liberty is something you get by blowing people up.” This is all hardly breathtaking, either for the sophistication of the dialogue itself or for the depth of the moral and political insights on either side — and that’s how I felt about the book as a whole too. Tyranny bad, liberty good, appeasement corrupting: we get it!
To be fair, I think some of this simple-mindedness comes from Viola, who is another of the ingenue narrators Walton alternates with her third-person account of Carmichael’s investigation. Carmichael himself is a sympathetically rendered character whose personal situation nicely encapsulates the insidiously encroaching pressures of dictatorship. As Ha’Penny ends, for instance, he has resigned himself to running an English equivalent of the Gestapo — to be called, with nice historical resonance, “The Watch” — partly because he has little choice and partly because he hopes he might have “the chance to do some good — to turn judicious blind eyes, and to make it better than it might have been.” It’s obviously a deal with the devil (did I mention that the bad guys in these novels are Nazis, or near enough?) and the road to hell is paved with good intentions … and the temptation to lapse into cliches when explaining what’s up is symptomatic of the problem I have with these novels.
It’s not that Walton is wrong about tyranny or Nazism or appeasement, or that her vision of this alternative future isn’t both plausible and a kind of cautionary tale for our present — but she hardly needed to create an alternative history to demonstrate any of her points, and the scenarios she comes up with are much less interesting than so many stories of actual people who cooperated with the Nazis in different ways and for various good purposes, stories that swamp us with the kind of moral complexity that I think these two books have notably lacked.
I wasn’t aware of these novels, but am pretty much burned out on the whole “Hitler wins” subgenre, which seems to be metastasizing. Choosing such a subject shows a rather limited imagination in the depiction of evil as well as giving me a sort of discomforting feeling that so many authors feel the need to keep re-imagining Nazism. The only two books of this sort I’d recommend and would consider re-reading are Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin, a Feminist-inflected dystopia of the far future, especially interesting for having been written in 1937, and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle which concentrates more on the Japanese side of the Axis and is itself a meditation on the whole alternate history genre.
“a rather limited imagination” — yes, exactly. That’s what I felt about Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, too, though overall I think it’s a much more interesting novel.
Well, how could I disagree with a review that so generously links to one of mine? (Thank you for that.) And I don’t disagree with what you say–it’s a convincing critique of the books. And yet I really liked them a lot. For some reason, the one detail that stays with me is the distinction made between Chinese and Indian tea, how the former is subversive (light, delicate, refined, suspect to the point of seeming degenerate) and the latter is sanctioned (heavy, solid, ) I really don’t know why I find this so ingenious, or why it’s stayed with me so long. (Maybe just because I don’t like my tea steeped too long? Maybe because it rang true as an example of how even the smallest aspects of daily life were, during fascism, and often still are, co-opted for nationalistic/moralizing ends.) Also, maybe I just haven’t read that many of these alternate future (or is it alternate history) kinds of things.
This is one of those reviews that makes me think: I know perfectly well you’re right, but I still think you’re wrong.
Anyway, as I recall, the third is the weakest, so you might want to give that a pass.
And thank you, Bill from PA, for the Swastika Night recommendation. I’d never heard of it, but will certainly be tracking it down now.
Dorian, as is so often the case with me, I’m ambivalent, rather than utterly dismissive — I hope that came across. She does so much well that I was disappointed that the overall combination of elements wasn’t better, more surprising. At the point I quoted above with Devlin explaining freedom to Viola, I found myself thinking “this is all being done at the level of YA fiction” — which is not meant to put down YA fiction but one reason we presumably recognize some novels as aimed at younger audiences is that they explain and simplify a bit to make up for assumed lack of experience and knowledge. In fact, I think this whole series makes almost perfect sense to me as a YA series! Or, alternatively, if I hadn’t been reading it hoping for so much more than a clever alt-historical twist on the mystery form, it might have lined up better with my expectations.
When I saw that the third one ALSO has an annoying ingenue narrator, I decided not to press on. Do you think there’s some thematic reason the first-person narrators have to be so thin? Focusing just on Carmichael — and really deepening his dilemmas — seems to me like it would have worked better.
It certainly did. You’ve definitely made me reconsider why I like the series. Good question about the ingenues. My only thought is that it’s a way of showing just how fascist England’s become–as if everyone under a certain age had been brainwashed or just didn’t know better, after all it’s what they grew up with, that sort of thing.. But I admit I don’t remember the books that well, only really liking them. I wonder what you’d think of My Real City (her latest). Seemed a more interesting take on alternate history than either the trilogy or Life after Life.
I wonder whether these books were written before or after V for Vendetta. Some of this — the ingenue, the man coercing her into violent resistance, fascism and police collaboration, the term “the Watch,” even the alt history (V for Vendetta is a barely-veiled critique of Thatcherite England) – is reminiscent of V for Vendetta, especially the film version.
I wouldn’t have been able to make that connection, since I haven’t read / seen V for Vendetta, so thank you! You make me curious about it. The similarities do sound striking.
“I know perfectly well you’re right, but I still think you’re wrong.” Ha.
I loved this trilogy, but understand your criticisms. To me their power is in their arguments about early 21st century Britain during the Iraq invasion (and right now, for that matter, when citizens are urged to be “vigilant,” whatever that means, and governments are seizing on anti-immigration/Islam sentiments for their own agendas). I find her alternate history to be a really worthwhile lens through which to examine the present–how do you stay moral and human against such a background?
I did read these books though during a holiday this summer, and I wonder if they’re more effective in that venue as opposed to being subjected to critical scrutiny….
It’s funny that you say that about reading them more casually: in his GoodReads review Dorian makes the comment that he worries the books won’t be taken seriously since they are genre fiction, so I actually was trying hard not to sell them short. But some books do crumple a bit under too much critical pressure and maybe it’s only fair to lighten up and let them be easy.
I was rereading My Real Children recently and realized that some of the prose is absurdly bad, unrealistic (the dialogue in particular). But I argued myself around to the fact that in genre fiction, being true to life is not necessarily intrinsic to the project, and that Walton’s expository dialogue here serves instead to illustrate the passage of time and the extensively detailed history of her characters, which is what the book is all about. Okay, maybe I’m out on a limb trying to justify a book’s badness, but I did so love that book (even with the second reading) so forgive my reaching. And maybe I’ve just insulted the genre people again, which I seem to do always and always.
Agree with Kerry Re: My Real Children, both about its clunky dialogue and its power. So I guess the task would be to try to name what makes the books so enjoyable for some readers despite their limitations. (Task for another day.) I appreciate your willingness to take them seriously, Rohan, and wouldn’t want you to ease up on them because they’re genre fiction. (Though what genre exactly is a question.) BTW, Rohan, do you know she re-wrote a Trollope novel with dragons? (Haven’t read it: it’s called Tooth in Claw…)
On the topic of justifying bad writing, I feel the need to share something I encountered this past year while I was reading a number of Gothic novels. Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya, or The Moor has its few moments, but on the whole has little to recommend it except, perhaps, to scholars of Romanticism, since its readers included Shelley and Byron. It really is poorly written for the most part, and, apparently to justify the inclusion of the novel in the Oxford World’s Classics series, Kim Ian Michasiw in his introduction offers this suggestion (which I’ve become fond of paraphrasing when I encounter bad writing):
On the need for “linguistic mastery” in the writing of fantasy, I recommend the essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” in Ursula K. Le Guin’s collection The Language of the Night. She holds both writers and readers to a high standard:
Bill from PA–Can you recommend some really well written fantasy to someone who hasn’t been following the genre since he was about 18 (i.e. 25 years ago)?
Did your reading way back when include John Crowley? Little, Big readalong in April, I think! That is a well-written book.
While I’m here I’ll point to Mervyn Peake, too. And to move back to Victorian times, George MacDonald.
Thanks, AR (T). I have a copy of Little, Big kicking around and would love to do the readalong,,, but you know how good I am with those… still stalled 40 pages from the conclusion of Mysteries…
Dorian, if you’re looking for recent fantasy, I can’t be of any help; my reading tends toward older works. The most recent fantasy I’ve read is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which is certainly well-written in a pseudo-Regency style, but as a story I found it rather rambling and unsatisfying on the whole. I’d second Amateur Reader (Tom)’s suggestions. Little, Big is very good as is, in a more Science Fictional vein, Engine Summer; Crowley has a more recent four novel sequence, Aegypt which I intend to read, but it seemed to garner more critical enthusiasm for the earlier volumes than for the conclusion. I absolutely adore Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan and Gormenghast, which are sometimes considered Gothic rather than fantasy, there being no magic or fantastic beasts, only an ancient ritual-encumbered castle and its eccentric and bizarre inhabitants; but these books are really sui generis, with no ancestors and no descendants.
Other older fantasy which I would recommend both for quality of writing and story are:
The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson. Michael Moorcock thinks the original version of 1954 far superior (it’s been re-printed by Gollancz) but I read the 1971 revision in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series and found it quite satisfying.
The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison. The elaborate mediaevalesque descriptions in the first chapter or so may be somewhat off-putting, but if you stick with it until the story starts moving in Chapter 3, you’ll be hooked and find that, as in the best fantasy, the unique prose is an essential element of the world-building. As Le Guin says, it has the genuine accent of Elfland.
Speaking of Elfland, most would recommend Lord Dunsany’s short stories, but I particularly love his novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter, set partly in Elfland and partly in “the fields we know”. Here’s enchanting storytelling with a leavening of humor, and a wonderful depiction of a unicorn hunt. Another well-done fantasy which concerns the quotidian world coming into contact with a magical realm is Hope Mirlee’s Lud-in-the-Mist.
Finally, more recent than the above, but now a few decades old is Gene Wolfe’s tetralogy The Book of the New Sun, which is considered SF by some, though Gollancz included it in their “Fantasy Masterworks” series. This is a tale set on Urth, a neo-mediaeval world in the far future, told using an often archaic vocabulary. Wolfe will often only allude to events, trusting the reader to catch on what is happening. In my initial reading, for instance, I caught on to one character’s identity through a hint and expected it to be a big “reveal” later in the book; but, no, that hint was all Wolfe provided to indicate the character’s identity and then moved on with his story.
Thank you, Bill from PA! These are intriguing and I’ll look into them. Funny you mention Jonathan Strange… I started it this summer, made it 200 pp in and abandoned it. I felt I’d given it a pretty fair shake but it didn’t seem up to much. Agree with your description of it as “rambling and unsatisfying.”
I started Jonathan Strange too and gave it up, though I’ve hung on to it because so many readers I trust really love it. Maybe you just have to find the right time to accept something rambling? It’s an authentic 18thC way to be, as a novel (which is perhaps one reason I studied the 19thC novel instead…).
My earlier recommendations were all inside-the-box choices, books any bookstore employee (a creature almost as mythical as a hippogriff) would file under “Science Fiction / Fantasy”. On reflection, I also wanted to recommend an outside-the-box author, someone I’ve never seen listed under fantasy but whose work nevertheless drinks deeply of the fantastic, Steven Millhauser. His first three novels are among my favorite books of any genre:
Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright; a book about a 10 year old boy who writes a major American novel has to be fantasy, right? Perhaps the significance of the writer only exists in the mind of his biographer, one of the questions raised by the literary-satirical side of this book. But the real attraction here is Millhauser’s prose; I found his evocation of a midcentury American childhood almost thaumaturgic.
Portrait of a Romantic evokes adolescence in a way similar to that in which Edwin Mullhouse conjures up childhood. Though there are a few fantastic details, such as mechanical doll that juggles three miniature balls, this probably shouldn’t be classified as a fantasy, although adolescence, that great era for the reading of Tolkien, is itself often lived as a kind of fantasy, alternating between the Elfland of childhood and the gray reality of adulthood.
From the Realm of Morpheus is the Millhauser book most easily classified as fantasy, and as far as I know, it has never re-printed since its first hardcover release. Like the dream-journeys of classical and medieval literature it describes a trip through a world of sleep and dreams, including a painting that comes to life and a library that contains completed books, such as Edwin Drood, never finished by their authors in the waking world. It’s too episodic to be a satisfying novel, though I understand the manuscript was significantly cut before publication.
I haven’t read all of Millhauser’s story and novella collections, but from those I have read I believe that any of them would contain one or more pieces that could be classified as fantasy. I would not advise you to start reading Millhauser with Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, despite its Pulitzer Prize, or the slight Enchanted Night, both of which are lesser efforts of this author.
Looking back over my Goodreads entries, I found one more novel I should have mentioned: The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, a time travel fantasy set primarily in Regency England. It follows the adventures of a scholar who, at the novel’s beginning, is hired to shepherd a group of time-travelling tourists to an 1810 lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It’s not as stylistically noteworthy as the other books I’ve mentioned, but Powers tells the story very well and it is quite a ripping, fantastic tale.