Review of Farthing – Book 1 of the Small Change series by Jo Walton


One of the highlights of this last year has been discovering Jo Walton – I actually met and talked to her at Eastercon in 2012 without knowing her work, which I’m really sorry about because I think she is one of the brightest talents in the genre. I’ve reviewed Tooth and Claw and Among Others – which was my outstanding read of last year – here. So when Himself came across this alternate history offering, we were both delighted.

In a world where England has agreed a peace with Nazi Germany, one small change can carry a huge cost… Eight years after they farthingoverthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the upper-crust families of the ‘Farthing set’ gather for a weekend retreat. But idyll becomes nightmare when Sir James Thirkie is found murdered, a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest. Suspicion falls, inevitably on David Kahn, who is a Jew and recently married to Lucy, the daughter of Lord and Lady Eversley of Castle Farthing, but when Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard starts investigating the case, he soon realises that all is not what it seems…

As ever, Walton braids the apparently cosy into something different and when you’re lulled into a false sense of security, she pulls the rug from under you. The familiar backdrop here is the classic country house murder. Guests are staying over – mostly the ‘Farthing set’, with the inevitable alliances and enmities, both political and personal. Inspector Carmichael and his loyal sidekick, Royston, set about the task of unpicking the various secrets of all the likely suspects. The investigation in alternate chapters is described in third person viewpoint, harking back to those Agatha Christie whodunits we all know and love.

But by far the strongest voice in the book, is that of Lucy Kahn. She bounces off the page with her first person narrative, told in a slightly breathless, chatty style that is so vivid, I actually dreamt of her… Her love for her husband shines through – as does her disgust for her peers, whom she regards at best as useless, after being educated by a thoughtful, egalitarian governess. And her wary hatred for her powerful, unscrupulous mother.

Walton is masterful at capturing a particular feel for an era – all the more impressive when this specific version never existed. In Walton’s Britain, because WW II didn’t run its full course and Germany is still fighting Russia, Labour never came to power. Which means the Old Order still prevails with landed gentry not beset by death duties and the measures put in place by the revolutionary governments just after the war, such as the Education Act of 1944 and the Welfare Act of 1948 never happens. So the gulf between the rich and poor doesn’t narrow, as it actually did in 1950’s Britain – which is why the narrative reads so much like early, classic whodunits. This Britain is far more similar to the world of Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie than the historical reality.

While on the surface this seems fine – there are constant jarring details. The language describing Jews is unpleasant – as is the fact that no public school in the land will take any Jewish boy, no matter how well connected or successful. Everyone has to carry an I.D. card and a whole raft of professions and employment are simply closed off to sections of the population if they are not born into the right class. And everyone appears to know and accept this…

Walton’s smooth writing style is deceptive. She manages to cover a lot of ground in a book just over 300 pages long – and while the crime is solved, the political fallout is just about to create a cascade of political consequences… I am waiting for the next book in the series, and if you have ever enjoyed any form of alternate history, then start tracking down this gem.

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