Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Farthing
Jo Walton
Tor, 320 pages

Farthing
Jo Walton
Jo Walton was born in 1964 in Wales. She won the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 2002 and the World Fantasy award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004. She now lives in Montreal.

Jo Walton Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Tooth and Claw
SF Site Review: The Prize in the Game

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

Advertisement
Jo Walton's novels are all quite different from one another. If any observation can be made about her work, it is that she has a gift for taking a familiar storyline and crossing it with an unexpected trope to present something not just new, but that informs and thus transcends the elements she draws upon.

Her last book was the splendid Tooth and Claw, which takes the structure and some of the character types of Anthony Trollope's Framley Parsonage and crosses it with dragons. The result is a delightful tale that engages smilingly with the savagery of so-called civilization, in particular at the top of the social ladder: the dragons are such noble beasts, beautiful, admirable, and apparently domesticated until they curl a lip to show a startlingly long incisor, or move a foot to snick out a talon the length of a switchblade to remind you that, yes, these are dangerous beasties. I've not since been able to reread Trollope's novel without thinking of Walton's work -- or, for that matter, I can't begin a dragon story without its being superimposed by a vivid image of Walton's dragons and their hats.

Farthing begins like an English country-house murder mystery. The reader meets people of privilege -- people who pride themselves on their gentility in manner and blood -- who discover a corpse in a bedroom, one of their own done to death by violence. Walton paints the scene deftly, evoking the period when country-house mysteries were at their height, and raises the expectations of a typical cozy mystery among the social elite. Gradually the reader comes to discover that this is not in fact our universe, but one over; in this one, England's portion of WW II never really happened, because in 1941 the government, currently led by political conservatives nicknamed the Farthing Set, made peace with Hitler.

The chapters alternate between two points-of-view. There is the first person account of Lucy Kahn, daughter of Farthing Set leaders. (The nickname comes from the name of their country house.) Lucy's relations with her family are strained because she married a Jew despite the family's censure. So she's a born insider who chose to become an outsider, because one of the issues, of course, in making peace with Hitler is accepting what he's doing over on the continent. She and her husband, David, did not want to come to this house party, but her parents were insistent, and so, to keep a semblance of peace, Lucy caved in. She was already regretting her decision before the body was found and everyone confined to the premises.

The alternate chapters are third person from the viewpoint of Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard, sent down to investigate the murder. He's frustrated because he senses that not everyone is telling the truth, but he has to parse the body language and tones of people whose upbringing is so different from his -- he's an outsider in various ways forced inside to complete his investigation. Meanwhile, Lucy, who knows the people, how they move and think, is looking at the mystery from another angle -- because her husband becomes the chief suspect. No one is behaving quite right, though she cannot define how, any more than she can believe there is a conspiracy among all these people who have been familiar to her since childhood. In the meantime, do not forget a government that can buy peace at the cost of compromise with the Nazis.

Does the mystery resolve? Yes, but no more hints about how -- or more importantly why. Just this. Farthing may begin like St. George's dragon couchant, but this time the dragon shows teeth and claws with deliberate menace before it launches -- and strikes with draconian resonance more than once. I had gotten about a quarter of the way in before I realized I was not going to be able to put this novel down, after which it left me stunned and unable to read anything else for quite a while after.

Copyright © 2006 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to editor@sfsite.com.
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide