Saturday, 15 October 2011

Farthing (Small Change Book 1) - Jo Walton

Title: Farthing (Small Change Book 1)
Author: Jo Walton
Genre: Alternative History
Published: 2006
Formats: Hardback/Paperback/Ebook

Available at:
Apple iBookstore US
Amazon UK
Alibris UK

Farthing by Jo Walton was chosen as the October read for the Women of Science Fiction Book Club. I have to admit that personally I wouldn't really have defined this book as being Science Fiction. I understand that some people always classify Alternate History as being Science Fiction but I don't and I would probably have placed this novel in the Mystery/Crime genre. Either way though I am glad it was included in the book club as I really did enjoy it.

The story is set in an alternate Britain, one that had made peace with Nazi Germany in 1941. Now in the late 1940's Britain is enjoying it's peace with Germany and the people who helped create this peace are some of the mover's and shakers of society. However, their position is not absolute as is proven when one of them is found murdered during a party at Farthing Hall on the eve of their attempts to take further control of the governing Conservative Party. Even though the evidence all seems to point at communists and Jews as the culprits, a thoughtful detective from Scotland Yard keeps investigating and uncovers secrets and a conspiracy that lead to the very heart of government.

To be honest, Alternate History books about Nazi Germany are rather common; it probably has to be the greatest "what if" scenario of the twentieth century. A fair number of these books tend to mainly speculate on the big international picture and how it affects everyday people. Farthing however seemed to concentrate on the lives and outcomes for the very people who had actually created the peace with Germany which I found to be rather refreshing.

In addition I found that the Britain she had created was rather realistic and frightening in the way that you could actually understand and see why Britain was heading the way portrayed in the novel. It isn't a Britain any reader will recognise as the class system within Britain has actually been reinforced by the earlier peace. There is no NHS, the rich and the poor are as far apart as always and the government was talking about banning anyone who had not been to private education from going to University.

In regards to the story, it actually reminded me at times of a country-house murder mystery of the type you could have expected from Agatha Christie. It is very atmospheric and well set up so that it really evoked the feeling of the very period where the country-house murder mystery was so popular a genre. I did note that some of the regular aspects of this genre are visible such as the huge amount of logic involved in every part of solving the crime, to the rather simple and contrived way the truth ends up being revealed. However, in all honesty the mystery aspects of the story I think are more a side show to the characters and the world that Jo Walton has created.

The plotline itself is progressed by switching between two alternating perspectives, the first of which is a the third person narration of the actions of the Scotland Yard detective, Carmichael and the second is a first person recollection of Lucy Kahn, who is the daughter of the family that own Farthing House. I found that this alternating narrative ensured you never got bored and I loved how both characters came to their own conclusions about the murder via the use of different methods and ideas. It really ensured that the reader knew more that either of these characters individually knew and could therefore come to an all around appreciation for what had actually occurred and why.

In regards to the main characters, I really liked both Lucy and Carmichael as they came across as being authentic and believable. I really loved how Lucy for example comes across a slightly absentminded woman of her time, but underneath this a strong willed individual with common-sense and a decent level of morality. Carmichael also showed some decency at his core as he strove to uncover the truth and gain justice even when others were taking the easy route out.

The other characters however weren't developed to any great detail and were more used as a caricature of prejudices and the different classes in society to enable the reader to understand more the type of world they were living in. Many of them didn't actually come across as really being good or evil; they just accepted what was happening and accepted it because that was how society "worked". These characters and some of the overall political information being fed to the reader I think were being used to show how Britain itself was slowly slipping into a fascist state.

The end of the novel did leave a rather nasty taste in my mouth, and actually left me a little disheartened. It does fit with the tone and feeling of the overall novel, but I can't say I was really expecting it. I really think the future for Britain itself was looking bleak and dangerous by the final pages. I suspect I will now pick up the remaining books in this series just to see if there will be some sort of light at the end of the tunnel or not.

Overall, I really did enjoy reading this book; it was interesting to read a mystery novel set in this fascinating and well written alternate Britain that Jo Walton had created. The book does have quite a slow pace as you can sometimes expect in mystery novels, however it isn't dull, the world and characters are slowly fleshed out as you progress which did manage to keep me reading. I do think this book will appeal to quite a lot of different people, obviously I think that people who enjoy Alternate History books should enjoy this book on at least some level. In addition, I also think people who enjoy non-contemporary crime writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie will also enjoy this book even.