The first novel I picked up by Jo Walton was Tooth and Claw, a fun Austen-esque romantic comedy of manners with a twist: all the characters are dragons, and all of VIctorian England's aristocratic cultural mores have their grounding in dragon biology. I never read alternate history, so despite enjoying Tooth and Claw greatly, I didn't pick up Farthing until I started a science fiction challenge and made alternate history one of the genre categories. I was rather dreading it, to tell the truth; in addition to not liking alternate history, I've felt overdosed on Nazis and Hitler since I had to read Night three times in two years for school (as well as Dawn and a couple others of that ilk -- all of which were excellent, and I respected them, but there is only so much of the dark side of human nature I can take).
So when Farthing started out as a fun (well, a different kind of fun), Sayers-esque cozy British country house mystery, I was pleasantly surprised. The narrative switches between Lucy's first-person perspective and a third-person limited perspective focused on Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard, and both perspectives were absolutely perfect for the tone. Lucy reminded me of several Agatha Christie heroines -- the ones that seem least suited to solving a mystery on the outside but who deep down have all the insight into the people around them, and the necessary cynicism to suspect the darkest motives while still holding firm to her own principles of right and wrong. Inspector Carmichael was a totally different type of detective, the one who forever keeps an open mind despite all and sundry pushing him this way and that with their own biases and assumptions. Added to this mix of British delight was Walton's frank insertion of sex -- not sex as scenery, added for tone and texture but otherwise irrelevant, but sex as motivation, which none of the British mystery novelists of the time could have talked about (though many alluded to it).
Throughout the first two-thirds of the novel, this was all it appeared to be, and I was delighted by that -- British country house mysteries are one of my favorite afternoon reads, and they are a sadly limited field as their authors tend to be dead, and forensic science has made their methods completely out-dated. But I did not fall into the trap I think many readers did, judging from the comments online. I never once forgot that this was an alternate history novel.
Through that first two-thirds the alternate history was kept strictly to the background. Oh, there were hints of chilling things happening -- the casual anti-Semitism many of the characters (even some of the "good" guys) displayed, the mention that some of the Farthing set were working on measures that would (1) allow the poorer classes to leave school as early as 11; (2) restrict higher education to those who had gone through public schools (which from what I'm aware of would be classified as private schools in the U.S. -- schools like Eton); and (3) restrict voting rights to only those who had graduated from University. Even more terrifying was how few of the characters not actively involved in politics cared about those measures -- Inspector Carmichael, for example, cared only in terms of how that would affect him personally or professionally, a trait which I found abominible and utterly realistic.
And then, just as I had pieced together the mystery to my satisfaction and was wondering how Walton was going to drag it out for the last third, all that alternate history came to the fore, and it devastated me.
[SPOILER ALERT! About character growth, not the mystery.]
Walton didn't drag out the mystery -- the characters pieced it together at almost the same time I did, and they discovered it was too late. Lucy was the most practical about this; she knew the implacable force they were up against best, and she knew when it was time to run. It was due to her essential good nature that a life was salvaged from the mess at all, and I don't expect the series to follow her any further, though I will miss her. She escaped as best she could, and if the life she gained was not what she deserved, I have no doubt that she will make the best of it. Carmichael took a little longer to understand how powerful the forces arrayed against him were, and he suffered more as a result. His eventual capitulation to those forces I found totally in keeping with his character, because as I mentioned above he was always deep down the type to focus on keeping his own head above water. Many appear to have missed Walton's clues to this facet of his character, and I don't deny that they were subtle, but I respect her more as an author because of that.
So while some have decried the ending as too abrupt and out of the blue, I found it absolutely perfect, if absolutely terrifying. The ending is what elevates the novel above Tooth and Claw -- instead of being an homage to a beloved genre with an SF twist, it is a dark, powerful, moving work entirely in its own right. I could not put it down through the last third, even though I desperately wanted to escape that world. I have no idea how Walton is going to continue to explore the world in the next two novels of the series; I don't even think I really want to know; but I know I have to pick them up and read on.
I am amazed that Jo Walton wrote this book in just 17 days. This book is taking up a disproportionate amount of psychic space in my head right now. If you don't want to be made to think, stay away. In some ways, Walton's inscription says it all: "This novel is for everyone who has ever studied any monstrosity of history, with the serene satisfaction of being horrified while knowing exactly what was going to happen, rather like studying a dragon anatomized upon a table, and then turning around to find the dragon's present-day relations standing close by, alive and ready to bite."
The premise of the book - an embattled, isolated England sued for peace with Germany to end WWII. It's now 1949. A blue-blooded society daughter, closely related to the political faction that created the peace, has shocked her family and indeed all of the upper class by marrying a Jew. When they are invited to a weekend retreat with her family, he thinks that they are finally getting used to him, but she smells a rat. Then a prominent politician is killed - at the party - and evidence points to murder by Jews.
Everyone in this book has a secret. Most of the secrets are dangerous. Most of them will stay on my mind.
An old friend of mine once explained his idea of science fiction this way: "Really good science fiction makes you think, 'Wow, that's really terrible! I'm so glad it's not happening here!... Wait a minute....'" And Farthing definitely fits this bill. It will unsettle you and make you worry about the future. Four stars.
A very odd and disturbing mystery set in an imagined 1949. Hitler has won the war, and England is not what it used to be...use your imagination and follow Lucy as she tries to save her Jewish husband, David, from a false accusation of murder.
A very enjoyable English country home murder mystery with the twist of an alternate history background. Possibly more enjoyable as the former, it doesn't dwell on the alternate history device as much as devotees of that genre might like.
For a very insightful review, check out the one on the hardback edition of this novel.
Seems like mostly mystery with a little alternate history thrown in.
First in trilogy of alternate history. Deft and interesting. Second book is equally well done.