Back in August I read an interview of Jo Walton by Leonard Picker in PW. They discussed the last book in her alternate history trilogy, Half a Crown, and its predecessors, Farthing and Ha’penny. This interview totally intrigued me and I clipped it, folded it into my wallet, and took it out again the next time I was in a bookstore. I had intended to buy all three books in the trilogy, but the bookstore had only Farthing in stock. I bought it and started to read it before sleep every night.
First of all, the chapters were the perfect length to read before turning off the light to sleep. Second, Lucy Kahn’s voice grabbed me immediately on page one. Two points of view alternate chapters, Lucy and Scotland Yard Inspector Peter Carmichael, whose voice is cooler, more objective, and fascinated by the “Farthing Set,” as is all of Great Britain in 1949, eight years after Britain signed a peace agreement with Nazi Germany. Hitler now controls the European continent and continues to fight the USSR on the eastern front. America never entered the war, and has almost no influence in Europe. I won’t ruin the amusing surprise here as to who became US president in 1940….(smile)
At the end of chapter one, Lucy mentions that Sir James Thirkie, also a guest at the manor house, “Farthing,” owned by Lucy’s parents, has been murdered. From that point on, author Jo Walton weaves a complex story of a murder investigation and the political intrigues that will lead to the election of a new prime minister. The last third of the book chills progressively colder and colder as Walton reveals the goal of the Farthing Set.
The primary strength of this novel is its two point of view voices. Walton establishes them so clearly and deftly that I looked forward to bed each night to spend some quality time with either Lucy or Carmichael. Each contributes clues to solving the mystery of who murdered Thirkie, and also the clues to the blanket of lies and innuendos contributing to a sly but vicious cover-up. Lucy provides insight and access into the upper class circle of people gathered at Farthing that weekend, and yet has become an outsider because of her choice of husband. Carmichael provides the much-needed cynicism toward upper crust dominance while his partner provides the working class skepticism. Both cops are smart but human and make mistakes and well as find ways to protect the innocent.
Walton builds her alternate England through thoughtful and specific details of human behavior as well as the political intrigues. I couldn’t help but be reminded a bit of “Upstairs, Downstairs” at times, but that was a good thing. She writes extremely well.
I absolutely loved this book, and I’m looking forward to reading the other two novels in the trilogy. Anyone who enjoys alternate histories, especially about World War II, or the novels Fatherland and The Plot Against America, would probably enjoy these novels by Jo Walton.