Farthing, Jo Walton

Tor, 2006, 319 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31421-5

After successfully combining Jane Austen and dragons in Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton is mixing genres once more in Farthing, this time throwing together a cozy English murder mystery in the pot along with an alternate history political thriller. While the result may not be perfect, it’s certainly good enough to warrant a good look.

Putting an alternate history in a thriller template isn’t new, of course: Len Deighton SS-GB and Robert Harris’ Fatherland also did so (to reach for the first two obvious examples), but neither managed the transition between the personal and the political as well as Walton does in Farthing. As a murder investigation spirals upward and outward into a political conspiracy, the novel shifts from a comfortable mystery to a nightmarish alternate history where everyone is at risk.

Alternating between first-person narration from a bubbly privileged girl and third-person segments following the investigating detective, Farthing initially feels like a classic murder mystery (“The butler probably did it!”) with a few unsettling details. Through various hints and careful exposition, we learn that this “Farthing set” of politicians has successfully negotiated peace with Hitler, freeing the Nazis to go fight Russia and letting Great Britain stand alone as an increasingly fascistic America keeps to itself.

These details take on a special importance as our narrator’s husband is suspected of murdering the victim. If Farthing seems to dawdle along pleasantly during its first two thirds, it eventually leads its readers to an abrupt break with reality as everything catastrophically changes and our cozy mystery becomes a conspiracy thriller. The last fifty pages are a fine example of dystopian political fiction with troubling echoes with today’s worst conspiracies. (Isn’t it fascinating how fascism-rising parallels find a whole lot more traction now than five or ten years ago?) What seemed like a charming book with unfortunate background details becomes a full-throttle chiller, reflecting the speed at which things can turn ugly when everything has been meticulously planned…

And let’s not kid ourselves: As a murder mystery set in Nazi-threatened England, Farthing is fun but not special. But as the description of how one’s country can suddenly slide into fascism, it roars up and demands notice. The ending makes the book in many ways: My initial issues in seeing the action leave Farthing Manor and scatter itself through the countryside were resolved when I realized that this expansion of setting mirrored the widening political intent of the book. It also takes some of the weight off the murder mystery, which simply isn’t as strong as the other half of the book. Finally, the heightening of the dramatic tension also contributes to re-shape our understanding of the characters as they take dramatic action to cope with the unexpected.

On a page-per-page level, Farthing is compulsively readable, readily accessible from its very first pages onward. Walton is a skilled storyteller, which makes the book’s few artistic mis-steps a bit puzzling. First among those is the almost comical accumulation of gay and bisexual characters. [September 2007: I seldom redact reviews after publication, but what was here instead of this parenthesis was, upon further reflexion, useless and stupid. Feel free to imagine the worst.] The “instant revelation” of a character’s pregnancy may also put off a few readers, though elementary research suggests this is anecdotally frequent.

But these are small details, and they pale when considered against the power of the conclusion. It reaffirms Jo Walton’s growing stature in the field, as someone able to combine good prose with high concepts. (I’d call Walton the “mistress of the hybrids” if it didn’t sound vaguely kinky in a Science Fiction fashion.) Two books set in the same world have been announced: we’ll wait for the details.

[November 2006: Jo Walton linked to this review from her blog, saying “Christian Sauve is fairly positive with reservations and clearly also knows fewer gay people than I do.” Well, yes. Two of her commenters weren’t so kind on me, citing the section redacted above. Lesson learned.]

[September 2007: Strange things happen, and “being asked to discuss issues in Farthing on a panel alongside the book’s editor, at an event organised by the author” is one of them. It went well, but I learned that I still have a lot of growing up to do.]

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