If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you!


August 23, 2008 by Tracey S. Rosenberg

Is it wrong to be amused that I got two search engine hits yesterday on ‘typoe eradication advancement league’? And a zillion more on the correctly-spelled version. They must have gotten Media Attention…erm, except that the blog is gone? What’s going on around here?! – ah, they got busted for correcting typos on a sixty-year-old hand-written sign in a national park.

Just finished reading Ha’penny [or Ha’Penny, depending on whether you consider the book cover or the publisher’s page to have the definitive spelling], the second in Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy – an alternate history where the British made peace with the Nazis. I voted Farthing one of my top ten books of 2007. I enjoyed this one, though I don’t think it will make the top ten this year. I did feel a lot more comfortable with the structure – as with the first book (and with the third, about which more shortly), chapters alternate between ‘young upper-class woman, first person’ and ‘police guy (the same one), third person’. I think they meshed better this time around, perhaps because the story followed a tighter line: there’s a plot, and we the readers know early on what it is, so the through story is ‘those who are formulating the plot’ working against ‘those who are discovering and foiling the plot.’

But the Mitford Larkin details became a tad fillerish. I can’t keep the six Mitford sisters straight – except for Unity (who I’m guessing is the equivalent of the Larkin sister who married a Nazi leader) – in terms of matching up names-to-eventual-reasons-for-fame, and to have six new names and six nicknames (only a couple of which connected to the real names) made part of my brain shut down. The fact that one of the nicknames is crucial to the denouement means that element couldn’t be sliced from the plot, but it became annoying to have the names used interchangeably. And, as I am painfully figuring out with my own novel, chunks of backstory don’t always work, because sometimes the reader says ‘why is this here?’ Bits that were integrated into the dialogue generally supported the plot and fit in much better as a result.

Another structural point that didn’t quite hold up: Viola Lark overtly informs us that this is her record of what happened, written after the fact, and she’s aware that it may be read. In fact, she hopes and assumes someone will read it someday, and adjusts her narrative accordingly. For instance, she deliberately doesn’t give details about a safe house, in case it doesn’t get rumbled and can therefore still be used. This means we know from the start that Viola is going to survive the novel – which is fine. The problem is that she makes a claim at the end of the novel which is patently untrue, and deliberately misleading. Even if she is dazed and in shock when she makes the claim, by the time she comes to write it down she’s recovered – so by writing it down she’s negating the lie she told verbally. Does she not care if anyone realizes this, or has the narrative itself abandoned the framing structure? This sort of thing happens in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, but for a fundamental purpose; here I’m just confused.

(It also made me realize that I was right not to do a similar thing in my own novel, because clearly I could never have reconciled myself to this!)

Where Ha’penny has a lot less force than Farthing is, I think, that in the first novel, the Young Lady of Quality actually gets caught up in the reality of impending fascism, and here she does not; awfulness is described, but kept at arm’s length. On the other hand, Carmichael’s story arc works better here because it develops over the course of the novel, rather than being sprung on the reader. The first chapter of the final book in the trilogy promises two debutantes attending a fascist riot, so perhaps there will be more direct contact.

Yes, that third book. It isn’t published until October. Thanks to the good nature of Patrick Nielsen Hayden, however, I have an ARC of it, so I shall read it with enjoyment and then publish a review when the time is right.


2 thoughts on “If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you!

  1. kicking_k says:

    I downloaded “Farthing” when Tor were giving away e-books, and am very much looking forward to reading it when I get a moment.

  2. tsrosenberg says:

    Ah! I have that e-book too!

    Let me know what you think!

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Tiny bio

I live, work, and write in Edinburgh. I travel to other places as much as I can. To contact me, email writingmostly at gmail dot com.


CURRENTLY READING: The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo.

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