Monday, November 7, 2011

Review: Farthing by Jo Walton

Farthing by Jo Walton
Published: Tor, 2006
Series:  Book 1 of the Small Change Trilogy
Awards Nominated: Locus SF, Nebula, John W. Campbell Award
The Book:
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.”

I read Jo Walton’s Farthing as the October selection for the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book Club, hosted byCalicoReaction.  I’m a little behind again, but oh well!  I’d never read any of Walton’s work before, but I am planning to pick up Tooth and Claw in the near future.  At some point, I think I’d like to read the rest of the Small Change trilogy as well, though Farthing definitely stands on its own without sequels.    

My Thoughts:
Farthing is a fascinating combination of a country manor murder mystery and a WWII era alternate history.  The story begins with the mystery, and only slowly reveals a world that is not quite like our own.  The murder mystery is less concerned with Holmes-esque feats of logic than it is with a more ordinary type of investigating.  Carmichael’s work mostly involves paperwork, politics, and interviews with often-dishonest suspects. The stakes of the story were raised as more and more of the alternate history setting started to intrude on the situation at the country manor. I enjoyed both aspects of the story and was impressed with how well they worked together to create an atmosphere of increasing tension from leisurely beginnings. 
While I appreciated the story itself, the novel was really brought to life by the two main characters.  The narration alternated between the first person viewpoint of Lucy Kahn and the third person viewpoint of Inspector Carmichael.  It took a while to get used to the switching between first and third person, but I was really impressed with the huge difference in style between the viewpoint characters.  I would never have read a sentence of Lucy’s narration and mistaken it for anyone else.  
To be honest, Lucy really irritated me at the beginning.  She seemed like the usual representation of a ditzy, coddled, aristocratic woman-child—not one of my favorite character types.  However, later on in the story, I began to feel guilty about my initial dismissive attitude towards her character.  While she definitely was a little silly and sheltered, she was also a person of loyalty, courage, and integrity.   On the other end of the spectrum, Inspector Carmichael started as a very business-like, professional narrator.  Throughout the story, though, various aspects of his personal life and principles were slowly revealed.  I preferred Carmichael’s chapters at the outset, but, by the end, I was equally engrossed in the stories of both narrators. Many of the minor characters were fairly simple, but Lucy and Inspector Carmichael were engaging, complex, and dynamic characters.
Aside from being an absorbing story with active, likable main characters, Farthing also had a lot to say about human nature.  While some of the themes seemed a little heavy-handed, Walton’s writing never felt preachy to me.  Much of the novel seemed to be about examining the dangerous relationship between prejudice and power. Farthing also showed how easy it is for otherwise good people to allow or commit terrible acts, and how difficult it can be to maintain one’s personal integrity.  While the story is very smoothly readable and entertaining, it also carries a punch that kept it in my mind long after I’d finished the last page.
My Rating: 4.5/5
Farthing is a very impressive novel that skillfully weaves together a murder mystery and an alternate WWII history.  It switches between the first person viewpoint of aristocrat Lucy Kahn, who married a Jewish man in defiance of her family and society, and the third person viewpoint of Inspector Carmichael, who is tasked with solving a murder at Lucy’s aristocratic family’s country retreat.  Both viewpoints are vivid and engaging, and both characters are complex and well worth following.  While the story is highly entertaining, it also has a lot to say about power, prejudice and human nature.  I’m glad I ended up picking up this novel of Jo Walton’s, and I can’t wait to check out more of her work!     

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