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December 8th, 2008

One unusual thing about PC Hodgell’s series is the stark change of tone from the first book, God Stalk, in the following books. My original impression, and one you can find posted by fans on line from time to time, was that, “oh, the first book was perfect, none of the others can match it…” But that attitude completely misses the genius of the later books.

Anyone expecting Dark of the Moon and its sequels to be just “God Stalk II,” more of the same, is of course going to be disappointed. That attitude reminds me of the letter a child is said to have written to the famous children’s author Arthur Ransome: “Dear Mr. Ransome, please write another book just like your last book with all the same characters doing all the same things.” 

God Stalk is a coming-of-age story. Set of a well invented universe to be sure, what makes it special is the personality of the main character Jame and how she grows. Her changes do not mean simply correcting earlier flaws or overcoming a painful naivety. She is capable, admirable, and fun from the first page, someone we enjoy spending time with. But that continues even as we watch her grow, at a dizzying pace, into someone even more interesting to be around as her understanding of herself and her universe grows. 

The kind of rapid personal growth depicted in God Stalk would start to look cancerous if dragged out forever, book after book. Instead, the later books develop for us Jame's universe until it too becomes as interesting a character as Jame. Indeed, the story arc develops into a relationship, a voyage of mutual discovery, almost a love affair, between her and her universe.  

I can re-read God Stalk over and over merely to enjoy well-remembered favorite passages; but re-reading the other books is a very different experience. Instead of revisiting favorite memories, I discover new wonders in them that I never noticed on the first (or second, or third) readings. God Stalk is still a pleasure; but the books that follow are a richer and more subtle brew.

(I am told that these first two books are about to be re-issued as one volume, as M.M. did a few years ago. I wonder how new readers, introduced to the two books together in one volume, react to this change in tone between the two parts?)
 I was first introduced to Jo Walton, literarily and literally, by Bill Higgins. He has her Arthurian books on the shelf in his guest room (which I have been known to frequent) and he had us both to lunch at the 2005 Worldcon in Glasgow, Interaction. Her Tooth and Claw tickled me for a number of reasons… not only as a delightfully funny concept in and of itself, but darn it if I didn’t actually get swept into the story and start caring about those characters. And certainly, the opening scene as the heirs are rapaciously eyeing the dying patriarch was priceless. What do you call it when the symbol becomes literally true?

I had downloaded from the Tor site her novel Farthing, but I’d never gotten around to reading it. Still, that was how I had become aware of the Small Change series and so when I saw the second of the trio, Ha’penny, available in a Denver bookstore (during my summer travels) I immediately picked it up.

I was not prepared for just how good it would turn out to be. Yes, it works well as an alternate history -- well-researched and quite believable, indeed far more believable than what really happened in our time-line. It also works as a thriller page-turner. Moreover, the characters are real; I may love them or hate them, agree or disagree with them, but I believe them. That is how people would act. No one is a villain in his (or her) own mind, and her writing pulls you along so that you are happily sucked into the self-justifications that each one lives with. And the ending reminds me of the climax of Dr. Strangelove, where you find yourself rooting for something that you also recognize would be all wrong, all wrong, and yet…

But of course the power of the book comes from the fact that, like all fiction, it is not really about the alternate universe where she sets her plot but the real universe where and when she wrote the book. I pray that in some not-too-distant future this particular impact will no longer feel so relevant; that, just like the McCarthyist background to Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, it will someday become a mere historical footnote. Meanwhile, I thank Jo for writing a book that works on so many levels, including in ways that I wish it didn’t.

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