Jo Walton’s “Small Change” trilogy is a challenging one to classify. Her previous novels in the series, and , easily fit a number of genres – alternate history, murder mystery, suspense novel thriller – without entirely being defined by any one of them. This book, the final novel in her series, is no different. Less a murder mystery than a political thriller, it takes her concept of a Britain descending towards fascism and moves it a decade into the future. By 1960, Britain has been ruled by politician-turned-dictator Mark Normanby for a decade. Jews and other perceived undesirables are frequently rounded up and sent for disposal to the Continent, where the Nazis have triumphed in their long-running war against the Soviets. Most Britons have accepted fascist rule, with a police force that now regularly tortures suspects, and a body called the Watch which serves as a domestic Gestapo, and have even come to believe it to be beneficial. Peter Carmichael, the former Scotland Yard inspector turned secret policeman, runs a clandestine organization that struggles to help rescue people when possible, but he is faced with the twin challenge of a potential coup by the Duke of Windsor and the discovery of his secret life by his ward Elvira Royston, the orphaned daughter of his former police partner.
As with the other volumes, Walton develops her story by alternating between the first-person account of the naive Elvira and a third person narrative focusing on Carmichael. Yet there is no great mystery in this volume but a dual plot focusing on the emergence of the totalitarian “Ironsides” movement and Elvira’s growing exposure with the realities of her world. Without the mystery, the emphasis is on suspense, yet Walton comes up short here. While she implies that her alternate Britain is a terrifying place, little of this seems to come out in the novel itself. Instead, everything seems almost laughably tame, from a secret policeman who is astonishing indiscreet and easily caught unawares to a underground coup that is hardly anything to fear. All of this saps the suspense from the story, making it a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise enjoyable and well-realized series.