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Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor, 2007
Series: Small Change: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate History (SF)
Alternate/Parallel Universe
Mundane SF
Avg Member Rating:
(37 reads / 21 ratings)


In 1949, eight years after the "Peace with Honor" was negotiated between Great Britain and Nazi Germany by the Farthing Set, England has completed its slide into fascist dicatorship. Then a bomb explodes in a London suburb.

The brilliant but politically compromised Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard is assigned the case. What he finds leads him to a conspiracy of peers and communists, of staunch King-and- Country patriots and hardened IRA gunmen, to murder Britain's Prime Minister and his new ally, Adolf Hitler.

Against a background of increasing domestic espionage and the suppression of Jews and homosexuals, an ad-hoc band of idealists and conservatives blackmail the one person they need to complete their plot, an actress who lives for her art and holds the key to the Fuhrer's death. From the ha'penny seats in the theatre to the ha'pennies that cover dead men's eyes, the conspiracy and the investigation swirl around one another, spinning beyond anyone's control.

In this brilliant companion to Farthing, Welsh-born World Fantasy Award winner Jo Walton continues her alternate history of an England that could have been, with a novel that is both an homage of the classic detective novels of the thirties and forties, and an allegory of the world we live in today.


Chapter 1

They don’t hang people like me. They don’t want the embarrassment of a trial, and besides, Pappa is who he is. Like it or not, I’m a Larkin. They don’t want the headline “Peer’s Daughter Hanged.” So much easier to shut me away and promise that if I keep very quiet they’ll release me as cured into my family’s custody in a year or two. Well, I may have been an awful fool, but I’ve never been saner, and besides, I can’t stand most of my family. I’ve never had the slightest intention of keeping quiet. That’s why I’m writing this. I hope someone someday might get the chance to read it. Pay attention. I’m going to tell you the important things, in order.

It started in the most innocuous way, with a job offer.

“You are the only woman I can truly imagine as Hamlet, Viola.” Antony gazed into my eyes across the table in a way which someone must have told him was soulful and irresistible, but which actually makes him look like a spaniel that needs worming. He was one of London’s best-known actor managers, very distinguished, quite fifty years old, and running a little to fat. It was an honor to be given one of Antony’s famous lunches, always tête-à-tête, always at the Venezia in Bedford Street, and always culminating, after the mouthwatering dessert, in the offer of a leading role.

That was the year that everyone was doing theater cross-cast. It was 1949, eight years after the end of the war. London’s theaters were brightly lit, and full of the joys and struggles of life. Palmer did it first, the year before, putting on The Duke of Malfi at the Aldwych. Everyone said it would be a fizzle at best, but we all went to see how they did it, out of curiosity. Then, with Charlie Brandin getting raves as the Duke, Sir Marmaduke jumped on the bandwagon and did Barrie’s old Quality Street, with all the men as women and all the women men. It was the success of the winter, so when plays were being picked for the summer season, of course there was hardly a house playing things straight.

I’d scoffed as much as anyone, or more, so much in fact that I’d turned down a couple of parts and thought of leaving town and lying low for a little. But if I left, where could I go? London theater was putting up a brave struggle against the cinema, a struggle already lost elsewhere. Theater in the provinces was at its last death rattle. When I was starting out, a London play would be toured all over the country, not by the London cast but by a second-string company. There might be two or three tours of the same play, the second company doing Brighton and Birmingham and Manchester, and the third doing a circuit of Cardiff and Lancaster and Blackpool. The deadliest tours played at every tiny place, crossing the country by train on a Sunday, staying in the most appalling digs. It was the way you started out, and if you were better known and wanted a rest from London, the second companies were panting to snap you up. But since the war tours were rare, and there was fierce competition for them. There was only London, and the occasional tryout elsewhere. People in the provinces could just whistle for theater. They were starved of it entirely. I can’t think how they managed. Amateur productions and coming up to London when they could afford it, I suppose. Either that or they really were quite happy with the cinema instead.

In any case, there was no hope of a tour for me. If I didn’t work, I could afford to lie quiet for a season, if I lived carefully. The problem was that I couldn’t count on it being only one season. The theater lives from moment to moment, and once your name isn’t seen it can easily be forgotten. I didn’t want to leave acting, and besides, what was I supposed to do, starve? Well, the choice would be to starve or go back to my family, which would, I felt sure, be much worse than starving. My family are like cannibals, except that they wear pearls and diamonds instead of necklaces of skulls.

I gave Antony one of my best indecisive glances. Indecisive glances would be helpful if I took the part. Hamlet is famously indecisive. Besides, even if my friends did laugh at me for a few days, how often is anyone given the chance to play Hamlet? I’d gone along for lunch with Antony knowing it meant a good meal, almost sure I’d turn down whatever he offered me. Antony was never stingy, and the wine at the Venezia was always good. Hamlet, though. There are so few truly good women’s parts in the world, and Hamlet was a dream of a role, as long as the cross-casting didn’t make the whole play absurd. I could picture the lights already: viola lark as hamlet.

“Will you reverse everyone?” I asked, moving a little away from Antony and signaling to the waiter that my plate was utterly empty of tiramisu and could be taken away.

Antony took up his wineglass and sipped. “No,” he said. “Consider Hamlet, daughter and heir to Denmark. How much more likely that her uncle would usurp? How much more difficult that she assert herself? Hesitation would be much much more natural than for a man. Her relationship with Gertrude, with Claudius, works perfectly. Horatio wishes to be more than a friend. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can be seen in the light of Penelope’s lovers. Laertes, too, Laertes is Hamlet’s true love, which makes the end sing. In fact, the whole play makes much more sense this way.”

He almost convinced me. “But Ophelia?” I asked, as the waiter glided over and poured more wine. “Surely you’re not thinking of making that a sapphic relationship?” It’s funny, there are enough women in the theater who wouldn’t look at a man, and men who wouldn’t look at a woman for that matter, but everyone would have forty fits if you tried to put a storyline explicitly mentioning them into a play.

“There’s no real textual evidence it is a physical relationship at all,” Antony said, dreamily. “Or one could read whatever one wanted into their earlier relationship, why not, get thee to a nunnery, after all.”

“But surely Polonius sets her to entice Hamlet?” I shook my head, realizing that I’d have to look at the text again to make sure exactly what Polonius said. I’d never played Ophelia, all I had was a vague impression of the speech. “I can’t see a pompous stick like him encouraging a sapphic enticement, or if he did, I can’t see the Lord Chamberlain allowing us to show it.”

“The wonderful thing about you, Viola, is that there’s something in your head already,” Antony said. “So many young actresses have no ideas whatsoever. Hmm. We could reverse Ophelia, and make her another suitor; Hamlet beset by suitors. The two brothers, Laertes and Ophelia. That works, my dear. We’d have to cut the nunnery line. I don’t want to change lines, except for the he/she stuff, obviously, but Hamlet is always cut, judiciously, but cut. At full length, it would play almost four hours.”

I could imagine a female Hamlet beset by suitors, doubts, and ghosts. She’d be virginal, disgusted by her mother’s sexuality and unsure of her own. I was feeling my way into the part already. “I’ll take it,” I said, draining my glass.

“Very good,” Antony said, beaming. “And with your well-known family background, I don’t need to ask if you’re British born.”

“I was born in Ireland, actually,” I said, resenting the bit about well-known background. The papers had always made such a meal of my family, it had been a real handicap when I was starting off. I hated thinking people came to see me on the dancing bear principle. “Pappa was still Lord Lieutenant there at the time. But I’m a British subject.”

Antony frowned. “Do you have a new identity card?” he asked.

“Of course I do.” I fished it out of my bag and dropped it on the table, open. My rather wide-eyed snap looked up at both of us. “The Honourable Viola Anne Larkin. Date of Birth: February 4, 1917. Age: 32. Height: 5 feet and 7 inches. Hair: blonde. Eyes: blue. Religion: Church of England. Place of birth: Dublin. Nationality: British. Mother: British. Father: British.” I folded it up again. “And you could add to that grandmothers and grandfathers back to when one Lord Carnforth married a French countess in 1802, or back to the Conquest on Mother’s side.”

“That’s all right,” he said. “I’m sorry, it’s just that with the new regulations we simply can’t employ anyone who isn’t really British.”

“The new regulations are a stupid waste of time,” I said, lighting a cigarette.

“I couldn’t agree more, my dear, but I have to observe them or I’ll be in trouble.” Antony sighed. “My own mother was American, and in some eyes that makes me suspect.”

“But the Americans are our cousins across the Atlantic, sort of thing, surely?” I said, blowing out smoke.

“Surely,” Antony repeated, cynically. “But for some people they’ll always be the land of Mrs. Simpson, and President Roosevelt refusing to help us in 1940. I had a certain amount of difficulty with the registration for the new card. It was nonsense, as you say.” He drained his glass.

“You shouldn’t let it upset you,” I said. “Have you cast anyone else?”

The waiter, as smooth as a machine, and to tell the truth, as oily, brought us coffee. Antony stirred sugar into hi...

Copyright © 2007 by Jo Walton



- spoltz


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