I've written before about Jo Walton's Farthing and why this book has impressed me so very much. But I've been exchanging emails with Jenny D. recently on the book and why we both are so enamored with it and Walton (we are each reading the "sequel", Ha' Penny right now) and I've been wondering why it is not better known. In the SFF circles it has gained some notice and awards recognition but I have heard nothing about Farthing on any of the literary blogs. It doesn't seem to have garnered the kind of buzz that it should and while I have my suspicions as to why (genre genre genre); it still really ticks me off.
This is a well written, thought provoking, intense and smart murder mystery that nicely uses history to skewer everything we think we know about security, freedom and compromise. It's England and America, it's the 1949 that was and was not and the 21st century that most certainly is. Farthing is the kind of book that will make you shake your head, nod your head and roll your eyes in wonder.
It is flat out the real deal folks. And all of you should read it - I mean that. Every single one of you needs to find a copy of this book and read it.
So what makes it so powerful? (So incredibly, steathly powerful?) Well for one, it sneaks up on you. First you are just reading an alt history novel (and why alternate history sometimes ends up in SFF and sometimes doesn't - if it's written by someone sufficiently "literary" - I will never know. Why is alternate history considered SF at all? Isn't it still just a historical novel? There's no time travel - it's just an imagined was, rather than a realistic one. Who decided this was SF? Do we just not know what to call it?) and you are along for the ride, noticing all the differences from true history but still experiencing a murder mystery set at a wealthy British country estate. So far, not really so different. But as the plot unfolds and the murder is investigated more and more of the strangeness - the alienness - of Walton's world is revealed. The US did not "save" Europe in WW2, there was a compromise with Hitler, France was lost - the continent was lost - and Churchill did not get to make his stirring speech about so few doing so much for so many.
Some people prospered in the deals with Germany and some did not. I'll give you one guess on the poor folks who really got screwed - they weren't friends of Hitler's in the real history either.
But other than alluding to the poltiics involved, Walton keeps the story small. There is a murder and the cast of characters who are the suspects are a microcosm of England's ills. They have made their deals and alliances as well, and they have their petty hatreds too. Everyone is out for something or to get someone (just like war when you think about it) and poor Inspector Peter Carmichael is struggling to keep them all straight, let alone get to the bottom of the crime. It soon becomes clear that the murder is only the tip of the iceberg for what is going on out at "Farthing". It's far bigger than just one dead man and far more frightening. In the end, Carmichael is stunned to discover just what this plot is about and why it had to happen that particular weekend, among those specific guests. By then he foolishly thinks he knows what is going on - that he knows everything. But Jo Walton is not about to let us think that wars are so easily ended (as if we need to be reminded of that right now); or that a compromised peace brings some measure of freedom.
We are never safe until we are free - all of us, she reminds us with Farthing. And that may be an ugly truth, but still it is an honest one. There are more things to be afraid of then war it seems and by the end of this book I was scared indeed, not from what I read, but from what I now understood. It's so easy to believe you are safe just because someone tells you so - it's so easy to believe that you must give up everything they ask from you in order to maintain that safety. It's always so damn easy to do what you are told.
But there is a price, Walton reveals - there is a big ass price to be paid. And now more than ever I am suspicious of that; I am suspicious of everyone who wants to promise me the moon without telling me how much it will cost.
Farthing is a brilliant look at modern society and combines so many genres (mystery, history, family drama) that I believe it is impossible to classify as any one. It is a thinking book, the kind that will stay with you for weeks and weeks (months) after reading it. For coming up with this sort of drama, Jo Walton has proven herself to be not just a writer but a thinker of great value. She is giving us a mirror and inviting us to see. Be brave and read Farthing; I promise it will not disappoint.
UPDATED: Read the 7 Imps on Jon McGregor's two books (both overlooked!)
Also see Kelly's mention of At the Firefly Gate (which I have here on a stack and really now must read!)
And Jenny D. shares the love for Farthing and Walton: "I must say that I am absolutely overwhelmed with the goodness of Jo Walton's writing--seriously, she's one for the very short list of favorites, I have been trying to slow down so as to eke out the remaining books but it is simply not possible to resist such excellent novels."
UPDATE #2: Jo Walton weighs in on just what alternate history is: "As a marketing category, alternate history is mainstream if it's written by a mainstream writer and SF if it's written by a genre writer." There are over 60 comments (so far) on this post; maybe we need a sub category in SF that is Alt History? But then would Roth's book have ever been put there and would lit fans ever go there?
This sort of thing could just go on forever..........