Written by: Jo Walton
Genre: Alternate History
Pages: 334 (Mass Market Paperback)
Series: Book One (Small Change)
Why I Read It: This is the book that first made me aware that the author Jo Walton existed. At the time this came out, I'd never read an alternate history (to my knowledge), so the fact that she was playing with the post-World War II Era had me delighted. But for whatever reason, I never got my hands on this little beast until Christmas of 2008, and even then, it took me FOREVER to get around to reading it. It'd still be languishing in my TBR if it hadn't been picked for the Women of SF Reading Challenge, so I'm glad it was selected, because it's high time I finally sat down to read it.
The premise: ganked from publisher's website: One summer weekend in 1949--but not our 1949--the well-connected “Farthing set”, a group of upper-crust English families, enjoy a country retreat. Lucy is a minor daughter in one of those families; her parents were both leading figures in the group that overthrew Churchill and negotiated peace with Herr Hitler eight years before.
Despite her parents’ evident disapproval, Lucy is married--happily--to a London Jew. It was therefore quite a surprise to Lucy when she and her husband David found themselves invited to the retreat. It’s even more startling when, on the retreat’s first night, a major politician of the Farthing set is found gruesomely murdered, with abundant signs that the killing was ritualistic.
It quickly becomes clear to Lucy that she and David were brought to the retreat in order to pin the murder on him. Major political machinations are at stake, including an initiative in Parliament, supported by the Farthing set, to limit the right to vote to university graduates. But whoever’s behind the murder, and the frame-up, didn’t reckon on the principal investigator from Scotland Yard being a man with very private reasons for sympathizing with outcasts…and looking beyond the obvious.
As the trap slowly shuts on Lucy and David, they begin to see a way out--a way fraught with peril in a darkening world.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yes, but not in a "OMG you ruined the book!" kind of way. Because it is a book club discussion, I'll talk about everything and anything, so if you want to remain purely spoiler-free, just skip to "My Rating" and you'll be just fine. Everyone else, onward!
I'm really glad I had the experience of reading Tooth and Claw first. While the two books vary in tone and focus, it helped to already be familiar with Walton's ability to immerse the reader in a historical period. With Tooth and Claw, we had Victorian Dragons, and the book had a certain amount of whimsey that kept me turning the pages. Here, we've got the far more serious Farthing, set in alternate history, Hitler-controlled Europe (okay, technically we're set in non-Hitler-controlled England, but Hilter's taken over Europe, and his influence is certainly felt here), but the historical stamp that seems to be Walton's calling card (if one can make such an observation after reading only two of an author's books) is still here. Also helping the story along was our heroine's rather rambling, self depreciating, and sometimes funny narrative. Lucy had that touch of whimsey and charm that I enjoyed so much in Tooth and Claw, so it's no wonder I was subconsciously drawing comparisons between the two books.
Still, they're very different. In Farthing, Walton alternates between the above-mentioned first person narrator of Lucy, and the third person POV of Inspector Carmichael. At first, I was disarmed and befuddled, but once I got into the rhythm of swapping the first and third person narratives back and forth, I enjoyed myself just fine. More to the point, I found myself looking forward to Carmichael's sections, as his were the ones that were piecing the mystery together, and not likely to get hijacked by tangents, which were rather prevalent through Lucy's stream-of-conscious narrative.
That's not to say one narrative was better than the other. Having both provided a nice balance, and part of me wanted Carmichael to know everything the reader knew thanks to Lucy's POV and make him crack the case at lightning speed. Obviously, David was being framed, but the how's and why's and the lies that littered the novel made it difficult to figure out just what was going on. And I'll admit, a few times I wondered if David, perhaps, truly had a hand in the scheme. I'm glad he didn't.
The alternate history itself was utterly fascinating. More often than not, I found myself wondering if this alternate history was a result of Japan never bombing Pearl Harbor, which is what essentially launched the US into the Second World War? I'm not the history buff I'd like to be, despite this being a time period that fascinates me, but Pearl Harbor was never mentioned, and the comments made about the States' involvement (there's a frightening one where it's mentioned that Jews aren't allowed in America) made me wonder if this is the world we would've lived in if Japan hadn't drawn the US into war. I'm sure many an alternate history has taken on that premise: what if the US never got involved? I wouldn't be surprised if that was one of the questions fueling Walton's alternate history, but I'm not certain by any means.
Another detail that startled and delighted me was the alternate history version of George Orwell's 1984, only in Walton's world, Orwell penned 1974, which means he forecasted that gloom and doom would come much sooner. I don't know why that jumped out at me, and why it delighted me so, but it's telling how our world and histories shape us. I think that no matter what happened, Orwell would've always written some version of 1984, and on the sillier side, I was thrilled to see he still wrote Animal Farm.
If I have one complaint, it's the font and margin size of the mass market paperback. The font is TINY and the margins are SMALL. Since I wasn't reading this on a Kindle, it's not like I could just make the font bigger, you know? So the book felt longer than it actually was, all because of the type face. And since I already have glasses, I rather resent things that make me worry my eyes are going to be worse for reading them. :)
My Rating: Good Read
I had more fun with Tooth and Claw, but then again, that was a rather fun book. Farthing is far more serious, and deservedly so. Taking a page out of the 1940's mysteries, Walton creates a compelling story set in an alternate history England that's allied with Adolf Hitler, and it's a frightening place indeed. Only a handful of characters are truly sympathetic, but they're the ones you're supposed to root for, so that works well. The others, even if you outright dislike them, are still engaging in their role in the overall mystery. Who did what, and why? I'm definitely engrossed in the world, and look forward to reading the next two installments in this trilogy, Ha'Penny and Half a Crown.
Cover Commentary: This cover has always been striking to me. The colors, the bold fonts, the swastika dominating the art and revealing the cover art image. All of it was compelling for me, and it's a wonder I didn't pick this book up sooner. It's a wonder I didn't read it sooner, given the cover!
Next up: Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin
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