November 21st, 2009

Stone & Sky

Farthing, by Jo Walton

Title: Farthing
Author: Jo Walton
Series: Small Change #1
Publisher: Tor
Format: Hardcover
Year: 2006
Pages: 319
Genre: Alternative History

Jacket Description
One summer weekend in 1949 -- but not our 1940 -- the well-connected "Farthing set," a group of upper-crust English families, enjoys 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 earlier.

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 her husband were brought to the retreat in order to pin the murder on David. 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.

My Review
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.

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.
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