Review: Still Life with Fascists trilogy, Jo Walton

Britain didn’t declare war on Germany. Instead they made peace, and Britain slid gradually into fascism. One might call the trilogy the Small Change trilogy instead, as the books are called Farthing, Ha’Penny, and Half a Crown, but I like the Still Life with Fascists title better. Each book has two narrators, one the first-person narration of a young upper-class English woman, and one the third-person narration of a morally compromised policeman called Carmichael. Don’t you love a morally compromised narrator?

The first book, Farthing, is a country house murder mystery. The so-called “Farthing set”, famed for their integral role in negotiating peace between Germany and Britain, is all together for the weekend when one of their number, high-ranking minister James Thirkie, is found dead in his bedroom. When Carmichael, the not-yet-morally-compromised-but-oh-he-will-be police inspector man, comes to investigate, he finds that suspicion is being cast upon David Kahn, the Jewish husband of Lucy Kahn (our upper-class English woman first person narrator). I loved the hell out of Farthing. I loved Carmichael and I loved Lucy and I loved the plot. Plus, Lucy? She refers to people as Athenian (which means gay), Macedonian (which means bi), and Roman (which means straight). When I discovered that she was not featured in the second book, I almost cried.

Briefly. Then I began reading Ha’Penny and found that it was interesting in its own right. In it, actress Viola Lark, one of the famous/notorious Larkin sisters (“the one who acts”) (yes, these are fictionalized Mitfords), becomes involved almost accidentally with a plot to assassinate Hitler and the Prime Minister of Britain. I won’t tell you how this works out, but I will say that Carmichael? Does not respond in a way that makes him feel good about being him. Because he’s morally compromised, yo. Morally compromised protagonists are never happy with anything they do, which is why I like them so much.

And then there was Half a Crown. Which I loved all the way through until about twenty pages from the end. I mean it’s just so grim. It’s set in 1960, and fascism has become deeply entrenched in Britain, to the point that our narrator, Elvira Royston, calls it “such fun” and eagerly attends fascist rallies. The environment in Britain is shocking to read about, because it’s so far removed from what Britain is really like, and because it’s easy to imagine it being that way if history had gone differently. This is how the best alternate history works, though, right? Moral compromising abounds! I couldn’t put the book down because everything seemed to be going all to hell, and I couldn’t imagine how things were ever going to work out. Apparently Jo Walton couldn’t either. It was a total deus ex machina ending, and it made me sad because the books deserved better.

But never mind. I will just pretend that everything ended after Elvira [REDACTED FOR SPOILER-FREE SEPTEMBER], leaving the reader to contemplate the probable collapse of Britain and ruin of every character we cared about. Because that, depressing though it would be, at least would be an ending that paid out the darkness of the rest of the books.

Oh, dear, I sound terribly grumpy. I swear, these books are worth it, even with the bad ending. The writing is wonderful, the premise feels frighteningly realistic, and the characters are a joy to read about. Just go into it with the awareness that the ending will not satisfy, and resign yourself early on to that reality, and then perhaps you will not be disappointed, as I was. Many thanks to Memory for recommending these books. I loved them! I can’t wait to read Walton’s earlier series, as well as Tooth and Claw!

35 thoughts on “Review: Still Life with Fascists trilogy, Jo Walton

  1. These sound like something I might like. On my TBR they go. And I have to put in a plug for Connie Willis, who does WWII-era Britain time-traveling, and who simply Cannot Be Beat.

    • I know, I know. I am going to give Connie Willis another try soon. Only I read The Doomsday Book a while ago and didn’t like it, and I haven’t tried anything by Willis since then.

  2. That sounds SO good! Just checked, but my library doesn’t have these books. Makes me rethink going there tomorrow, I might just make a scene involving violence and lots of high-pitched noise.

    • Can you interlibrary borrow them? I’m about to do that for a different trilogy of books I’m dying to read that my library only has the first one of. I don’t know why they would do that to me! Only the first one? Whyyyyy?

      • Sadly this interlibrary system doesn’t work as well here. It costs 2 or 3 euros I think and then you have to wait for weeks. But only if some other library in the area has it. But I’ll be back in uni in a month and hopefully I’ll have more luck there (fingers crossed!).

        Libraries are so weird! Why would they only get the first book in a trilogy? My library never understands that some books are part of a series, but they do get a German and an English edition of a picture book!

  3. The ending kind of let me down, too, but I feel like this’s one of those rare instances where I didn’t mind. Only, I did mind, but I minded in such a way that it didn’t take away from the rest of the book (unlike certain other books I could mention *coughatonementcoughcough*)

    I also loved Lucy’s sexuality tags (is tags the right word? I’m having a can’t-find-the-right-word kind of a morning), and I totally grinned when I saw that you’d tagged this #teamboyskissing.

    • Huh. Whereas I (who hated Atonement) thought that that ending was fantastic, by far the best thing about the book. Of course I say that having formed no attachment whatsoever to the characters and thus having no real interest in what became of them. I think that if an ending’s going to disappoint me, I’d rather it disappoint me by being depressing, than unwarrantedly easy and happy. And an ambiguous ending is, of course, better than both.

      Why wasn’t there more Lucy? She was a great character, even if it did squiff me out a teeny bit about her brother and her husband.

  4. I’m tripping over Mitfords lately. Is it just me, or are they popping up all over the place? Just finished and loved Pursuit of Love, and, oh be joyful, there’s a BBC adaptation with Judi Dench.

    • I have one of Nancy Mitford’s books on my shelves waiting for me to read it, but so far I have not. I feel like I should learn more about the Mitfords in real life first; right now all I know are their names and the fact that Unity had a crush on Hitler and tried to kill herself when the Germans lost the war.

  5. Oh I hate it when an ending ruins a book! (I also hate it when a season finale on one of my fave shows sucks, and I then pretend the season actually ended with the penultimate episode.) It must’ve been pretty bad if your preference is for facism to triumph! lol

    • I mean it didn’t exactly ruin it, but it was a hell of a letdown. Fascism triumphing would have been depressing, but it wouldn’t have sold out the whole tone of the series, at least.

      And I totally know what you mean about season finales, or series finales even more. I recently watched all three seasons of Veronica Mars, and because it was stupid spoiler-free September, I didn’t ask the internet what happened in the end of the third season, and so I didn’t realize the last episode was the final one. There was another disc in the box! Only when I put it in it turned out to be special features, and the totally unresolve-y episode I had just seen was the last one ever! It was very unsatisfying! *phew* (I have been needing to vent about that for a while. :p)

  6. Also, I just realised this is the same Jo Walton who wrote Tooth and Claw, which I have out from the library right now! I hope it has a better ending!

  7. These do sound like terribly interesting books, and despite the fact that the last one is a little disappointing in it’s conclusion, I think I might really like them. Also, Lucy sounds like a trip! Thanks for bringing these books to my attention, Jenny. I had not heard of them before!

    • Yeah, and in spite of the bad ending to the trilogy, I still think it’s very worth reading. Don’t thank me, thank Memory–she read them all earlier this year and wrote reviews that made me drool. :p

    • I haven’t read it, but I’ve had it on my list for a while. I just clicked through to your review and almost choked on my coffee with excitement because I totally didn’t know it was a boarding school book. AWESOME. I am getting that at the library when I go tonight. And dude, your footnote about British school girls foiling enemies filled my heart with joy. I am hoping my library has at least some of those.

  8. ah, Farthing is on my to-read list but I can’t remember how it got there. Glad to see another review to revive my desire to read it!

    For whatever reason, your review, the name of this trilogy and its subject matter make me think of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy. The (of course morally-compromised) detective Bernie Gunther lives in the Third Reich, so you can imagine how dark those books get. The last one occurs in the chaos after World War II has officially ended. I’m not exactly recommending them, as their grittiness does not make them an surefire recommendation, but I thought I’d cast the name of the books out there for you or anyone possibly interested.

  9. I loved these too! And wanted more Lucy. Just because I am so, so, careful I stopped reading your review where you started talking about Half a Crown because my library doesn’t have it yet.

    • Doesn’t have it yet = has it on order and it will arrive soon? Because I had enough frustration waiting for my library to transfer their copy of Half a Crown from the far-away branch to the branch I go to. If they hadn’t had it I would have been seriously put out.

      • No, they don’t have it at any branch. I will have to make another of my daring ILL requests, or pony up. I could buy the whole trilogy and then loan it to my granny to read, which would help me justify the expense, only I think she would be a little disturbed, having lived through WWII.

  10. These sound interesting – I’ve read a few alternative WWII books – notably SSGB by Len Deighton and Fatherland by Robert Harris – although the bad ending puts me off – so many books are ruined because the author hasn’t thought through how they are going to end them.

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