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Saturday, March 01, 2014

Farthing by Jo Walton

Farthing is an alternate history that, like Dominion by C.J. Sansom, imagines a Britain that negotiated a peace with Hitler.  

At first, the tone of the book made me wonder if I'd made the right choice.  Lucy Kahn, a kind of dizzy dame stereotype, seems too light weight.  Yet in spite of her upbringing among the socially elite, Lucy did have the gumption to marry a Jew and risk being shunned by her social set.  Although Britain has yet to institute all of the restrictions that presaged the rise of the Nazi power in Germany, the prejudice against them is serious. 

Lucy frequently mentions that she isn't as intelligent or well-educated as her husband, but there remains something inherently decent about her that appeals in spite of her naivety.  

Lucy and David have been invited on short notice to attend a house party at her politically powerful parents' estate.  Lucy didn't want to accept, knowing how much her mother hates David, but David feels the invitation to be an olive branch, and the two of them join the other guests for the weekend.  He has faith in the basic integrity of the English.

When the politician who negotiated the peace with Hitler is murdered, circumstantial evidence points to David.  At this point, Lucy begins to come into her own, gradually becoming more wary of the undercurrents and more suspicious of the circumstances of their invitation to be present for this particular party.  In a way, Lucy has played a role, although perhaps unwittingly, most of her life.  She dislikes and distrusts her mother and is well aware of the fact that her mother has never loved her, but now she feels genuinely threatened.  The threat is directed at David, and Lucy's basic common sense and her own brand of intelligence begin to assert themselves.

The story is told from Lucy's first person narration and alternates with the perspective of the Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Carmichael.  The two points of view give greater insight into the situation(s) taking place at the Farthing Estate.  

Carmichael works the crime scene in a professional manner, but he also feels that events have been staged.   He is well aware of the political and social power of the Farthing set, but trusts that the investigation can proceed objectively, despite the influence that can be exerted to reach a quick resolution.

As it turns out, both Carmichael and David are mistaken in their beliefs that the real culprit will be caught and that honor and ethics will prove successful.  It is Lucy who first turns her thoughts to an alternative course of action.

The beginning is a little slow, but the characters of Lucy and Carmichael begin to develop, and the action becomes more and more tense.  In the last few chapters, I had no idea whether or not Lucy and David would become victims...and either scenario seemed appropriate.  

One thing I did find odd--about half of the important characters are gay or bisexual in a time when sexual preference could be not only damaging, but dangerous.  This was true even in accurate, not alternate, history as exemplified by Alan Turing whose work at Bletchley Park had a great deal to do with the defeat of Germany in the real world.  In this alternate history, however, it seems even stranger given that homosexuals joined gypsies and Jews in the gas chambers.  

At any rate, I'm very glad to have read Farthing and will get to the next book, Ha'Penny soon.  

Read in February.

Alternate History/Mystery/Police Procedural.  Originally publ. in 2006.  320 pages.


  1. Yes, I thought it was a bit over-egging the gay-ness given the times, but, then again, perhaps this is part of the alternate universe conceit. Once one buys in to the 'world', one sort of has to buy into all the author's conceits (though I still thought 'ahistorical'!) ;-)

  2. vicki - It was a curious detail. I kept thinking about the phrase "What goes around comes around." The powerful homosexuals that were intent on following Nazi protocol against Jews might find themselves next on the list for persecution.

  3. I really liked Farthing -- what was so heartbreaking to me was David's certainty that injustice couldn't triumph. Jo Walton evoked that extremely well, I thought.

  4. Jenny - I know. David really believed that the system would provide justice. Carmichael, although less idealistic, hoped for right to prevail. The difference in tone and tension in the first of the novel and in the final pages is immense.

  5. I really enjoyed this but for some reason Walton is hard to find in the UK and so I haven't yet been able to get hold of the follow-up book. Your review has reminded me that I really do need to keep searching.

  6. thinking in fragments - I've heard that the books are difficult to find in the UK. Farthing was first published in 2006, but the edition I read was 2010. A reprint of Ha'Penny came out the same year from Tor Books.

    Oh, I just looked on Amazon UK and there is a new release this year.
    Ha'Penny - check this link

  7. I haven't had a chance to get to the sequels. They were out-of-print when I read this one and now I just haven't got them. Need to remedy that!

  8. I have this one on my shelf and am really looking forward to reading it. I think I had forgotten that it was this alternate history - that is certainly scary isn't it!

  9. Kelly - I still haven't ordered Ha'Penny because I have so many books on Kindle and on shelves. I will get to it, though!

  10. Iliana - Alternate history and murder mystery--I think you'll like it!

  11. Stefanie - Farthing provides an interesting look at how things might have gone in a negotiated peace. The way the tension increased toward the end was impressive contrast to the beginning.

  12. I've heard a lot of good things about this one. It does sound thought-provoking. Thanks for the heads-up about the slow beginning.

  13. Anna - Both this one and Dominion really make you think about how different things would be if England had negotiated a peace with Hitler.