This is the last in the Small Change trilogy about an alternate Britain in which fascism was not defeated in WWII. I found this conclusion of the series deeply satisfying. Like the other two books this reads for me as a mystery and thriller in which the excitement and tension come from the working out of character and moral choices rather than in fast paced action or clever use of weapons and technology.
Much of the tension in this one - and it gets nail biting at times - rises out of watching Inspector Carmichael's ward Elvira approach her coming of age in a Britain that has now been a fascist state for many years. Unlike the characters in the previous novels she has never known a world in which Jews and Communists didn't belong in work camps, in which she wasn't taught, in school and by her peers, that it is her duty to denounce anyone who opposes the state or even criticizes it too vehemently.
Elvira is a debutante and an aspiring scholar about to be presented at the Queen’s drawing room before going away to study at Oxford. She goes for fittings for her court dress, she envies her best friend just a bit for having nicer jewelry than she does, but supports her when she is too shy at parties. She flirts with an eligible man who takes her to a parade where the “family fun” includes floats, cotton candy, and jew taunting.
It’s a brilliant and chilling mixture – Jo Walton gives you an ordinary girl worrying about her hair and then just as you are relaxing into that familiar trope, she opens up the focus a little bit and shows you the nightmare that this girl routinely accepts as just the way things are. Its like walking down to the old corner shop for milk and having the ground drop out from under you. And then, oh then this Elvira who has been taught all her life to denounce the unsound and the disloyal, begins to suspect and understand that her “Uncle” Carmichael is not perhaps the pillar of fascist society that she has grown up thinking he was.
Just as she is observing the coming of age rituals of her society Elvira is also approaching emotional and intellectual adulthood, beginning to look at some of the hard realities that underlie the nursery school explanations and truisms that have satisfied her until now, and to question whether the rules she grew up with are the rules she wants to live by. But this is a society where that kind of questioning gets people killed. If she decides to follow the rules, she’s probably going to get her Uncle killed, and if she decides not to follow them she’s probably going to get herself killed. So now we got us a nail biter!
If Walton had done no more that this, if having walked us step by frightening step right up into the arms of this psychological dilemma, she had let either of those two possibilities play out, this would have been a really good book. A four star for sure. But instead she suddenly takes a sharp right turn and goes to a new place. And although I stumbled a bit when she confounded my expectations, in the end I had to laugh and shake my head and fall in love with it. Some reviewers have said the ending didn’t work for them, but for me it’s what elevated the book to five stars.
At first it didn’t make sense to me but the longer I thought about it the more I realized that it did, oh how it did. I said that the first book made me see history without the insulation of hindsight, and here, dang it if she didn’t turn right around and do it to me again!