Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union handily won the Hugo for this year’s best novel, and its success among SF and mainstream readers may bring wider attention to the genre of alternate history. Jo Walton’s Farthing (2006) also takes the form of a political mystery, set in a timeline that diverged from ours in the 1940s. In this case, England made peace with Germany, and the Nazis went on to conquer continental Europe. A sequel, Ha’Penny appeared in 2007, and a third book, Half a Crown will be available in late September.
Author: Jo Walton
First Published: 2006
In an alternate 1949, eight years after Britain made peace with Germany, someone murders one of the peacemakers, and the act has far-reaching political consequences.
Farthing takes the form of a “cozy” mystery from the Golden Age of detective fiction, but its implications are anything but comfortable. Walton’s fictional world provides us with a plausible look into what western democracies might have felt like if Nazi Germany had been the dominant world power. More significantly, her novel also provides insight into the forces that lead a democracy towards totalitarianism. Some of these may seem disturbingly familiar.
Certain developments in the novel’s plot and its recent, alternate history seem contrived. I don’t know that Walton’s specific version of history could have happened; I do know that the consequences, if it happened, might resemble what we see in the book, and the context does serve the story.
Originality: 3/6. Have you gone back in time to kill Hitler yet? I enjoyed Walton’s book-— it has that page-turning quality typical of the better old-school mysteries-— but she’s using established tropes and conventions.
I wonder what percentage of alt-history involves the Second World War?
Imagery: 5/6. Walton describes her world effectively.
Story: 4/6. The plot of Farthing develops in an engaging manner and turns suspenseful towards the conclusion. That conclusion, while dark, manages to be a little too pat.
Characterization: 4/6. The narrative alternates between two perspectives, that of a closeted gay detective from Scotland Yard and a female relative of the “Farthing” group. They have been characterized believably. I wish I had a better understanding of the others. Their motives make a kind of sense, but they never seem realized as individuals.
Emotional Response: 5/6.
Editing: 5/6 Jo Walton is a talented writer who deserves to be more widely read.
Overall score: 4/6.
In total, Farthing receives 30/42.