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by Jo Walton
TOR; $15.99, 319pp
Release Date: May 14, 2013
What a great book. Written in a dry English style this is the tale set in an alternate world where the United Kingdom made peace with Hitler in 1941 and the Fuhrer is comfortably in control. (Walton is “Welsh-Canadian” according to Wikipedia). This is the second book in a trilogy.

I think it is 1949—but no year is actually mentioned (I got the year from her previous novel “Farthing”). Everything is settled and English society has absorbed the Reich’s way of doing things with nary a whimper.

The novel concerns a conspiracy to eliminate Hitler, Himmler and the current boot-licking Prime Minister as they attend opening night of a cross-gender production of Hamlet in London . The conspirators enlist the aid of Viola Larkin who’s from a titled family and has five other sisters, one of whom has married Himmler. Viola is an actress and to distance herself from her family is known simply as Viola Lark. She plays Hamlet.

Walton gives the reader a solid fistful of characters, well-rounded and emotionally compelling. How the conspiracy is set up and moves forward is clever and tense.

The tale begins with a famous actress being killed by a bomb going off in her house. The natural suspects are Jewish or Communist terrorists, the usual scapegoats for bombings. The Scotland Yard Inspector Carmichael who slowly and methodically connects the dots about the conspirators is great. He’s good at his job. Where he has difficulties is that he is gay and knows he is only tolerated so he walks a very thin edge with his superiors. There are even Jews working in the Yard and their tightrope is terribly narrow as well. Walton alludes to the horrors of the Holocaust but in this universe, because Hitler has won and needless to say, controls information, how the Jews are treated in the camps is only rumor. Except of course, there are people who really know. And of course, there are plenty of people who want Hitler overthrown just on general principles! Hence the plot to kill the Fuhrer.

The set-up is just superb. Viola and the rest of the cast, so terribly British, rehearsing the play against the backdrop of a Reich portrayed as a well-entrenched organization is such a creepy contrast. The Reich is not made of Nazi cartoons and actually, over all, they have a low-key presence in the tale.

I also loved the cross-gender approach to Hamlet (he being played by a woman and Ophelia played by a man). The theater details are wonderful.

The style here makes me think of Laurie R. King’s approach to her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novels. To me, they are very much sisters under the skin.

As for the ending…ah, damn, the ending is not at all what I wished for but Walton handled it with restraint and aplomb.

There is a third book, “Half a Crown.” ~~ Sue Martin

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