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3.9 out of 5 stars29
3.9 out of 5 stars
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 14 January 2010
Jo Walton's novel opens with a typical mystery - a murder at an English country house - in a most atypical world. It is one in which the British did not defeat the Nazis, but sued for peace on the even of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Eight years after the 'Farthing Peace', the appeasers are celebrated in Britain as having been right, with everyone believing that the war only proved that the nation could stand aloof from the bloodshed on the Continent. Yet events soon prove just how wrong such thinking can be, as a prominent aristocrat is found dead with a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest. As Scotland Yard inspector Peter Carmichael investigates, he encounters a conspiracy that threatens to bring the climate of fear and hate across the Channel.

Walton's book is an enjoyable mixture of two differing genres, which combine to provide a fresh and engaging tale. The world she envisions is a plausible one, with historical detail that indicates a good amount of effort in fleshing out a new chain of events. The plot itself is gripping, with a mystery that does not fully resolve itself until the final pages yet holds the reader's interest throughout. While the ending presages the descent into the grim world of her sequels, Ha'penny and Half A Crown, it offers a very real meditation on the choices people make and the price that they pay for them. It all comes together for a suspenseful tale that appeals to both fans of alternate history and anyone who enjoys a good mystery novel.
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Farthing takes place in an alternate history, one where Britain made peace with Nazi Germany in 1941 leaving the USSR to fight alone. This is an England where Churchill never came to power and the social revolution of the postwar period never happened. An intriguing scenario which grabbed me straight away. But instead of a ‘what if?’ political thriller, the opening chapter read like a trad cosy crime country house whodunnit.
And that’s the extreme cleverness of Farthing. On one level it is an accomplished English murder-mystery, where all the drama comes from below stairs gossip. Then there’s a much more insidious side to it all, a creeping sinister realisation that the ditzy debutante and the honest cop who narrate alternate chapters of the story are gradually uncovering a very different postwar Britain to the one in our history books.

In this opening episode in the Small Change trilogy, the fictitious equivalents of the Bloomsbury set have negotiated a peace which allowed Hitler to concentrate his war efforts to the east. Soviet Russia is still fighting the sieges and famous battles, but instead of sympathy the communists evoke suspicion in the British people… as do the steady flow of Jewish refugees, fleeing the camps on the Continent. The UK government is gradually veering towards the right, in scary, subtle ways
In the midst of all this, a prominent member of the government has been murdered and a well-to-do Jew, husband of the flighty narrator, becomes a prime suspect. The policeman – a complex character who grew on me as the plot progressed – can see that all is not as it seems… but will he be able to conduct an honest investigation? And if he does, then what will it reveal?
(I go into more detail about the plot and characters at murdermayhemandmore.net)
It’s smart, subtle writing and the comparisons with early Le Carre are more than fair. Walton uses an intimate investigation and two very personal viewpoints to examine the collapse of the British character. It’s all rather refreshing; occasionally wickedly witty, which only serves to underline the reader’s guilty realisation of enjoying the tale while the country is surreptitiously being fed to the political dogs…

Farthing touches on the very issue which allows radicalism to take ahold of any nation state: when and how do ordinary people abandon the principles of liberty and become the baying mob? It’s chilling, thought-provoking stuff, and at the same time extremely entertaining – not relentlessly grim or oppressive, unlike most novels which explore this subject. However, things are likely to take a gloomy turn in Book Two, I suspect.
9/10
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on 3 December 2011
The story is set in an alternate Britain, one that had made peace with Nazi Germany in 1941. Now in the late 1940's Britain is enjoying it's peace with Germany and the people who helped create this peace are some of the mover's and shakers of society. However, their position is not absolute as is proven when one of them is found murdered during a party at Farthing Hall on the eve of their attempts to take further control of the governing Conservative Party. Even though the evidence all seems to point at communists and Jews as the culprits, a thoughtful detective from Scotland Yard keeps investigating and uncovers secrets and a conspiracy that lead to the very heart of government.

To be honest, Alternate History books about Nazi Germany are rather common; it probably has to be the greatest "what if" scenario of the twentieth century. A fair number of these books tend to mainly speculate on the big international picture and how it affects everyday people. Farthing however seemed to concentrate on the lives and outcomes for the very people who had actually created the peace with Germany which I found to be rather refreshing.

In addition I found that the Britain she had created was rather realistic and frightening in the way that you could actually understand and see why Britain was heading the way portrayed in the novel. It isn't a Britain any reader will recognise as the class system within Britain has actually been reinforced by the earlier peace. There is no NHS, the rich and the poor are as far apart as always and the government was talking about banning anyone who had not been to private education from going to University.

In regards to the story, it actually reminded me at times of a country-house murder mystery of the type you could have expected from Agatha Christie. It is very atmospheric and well set up so that it really evoked the feeling of the very period where the country-house murder mystery was so popular a genre. I did note that some of the regular aspects of this genre are visible such as the huge amount of logic involved in every part of solving the crime, to the rather simple and contrived way the truth ends up being revealed. However, in all honesty the mystery aspects of the story I think are more a side show to the characters and the world that Jo Walton has created.

The plotline itself is progressed by switching between two alternating perspectives, the first of which is a the third person narration of the actions of the Scotland Yard detective, Carmichael and the second is a first person recollection of Lucy Kahn, who is the daughter of the family that own Farthing House. I found that this alternating narrative ensured you never got bored and I loved how both characters came to their own conclusions about the murder via the use of different methods and ideas. It really ensured that the reader knew more that either of these characters individually knew and could therefore come to an all around appreciation for what had actually occurred and why.

In regards to the main characters, I really liked both Lucy and Carmichael as they came across as being authentic and believable. I really loved how Lucy for example comes across a slightly absentminded woman of her time, but underneath this a strong willed individual with common-sense and a decent level of morality. Carmichael also showed some decency at his core as he strove to uncover the truth and gain justice even when others were taking the easy route out.

The other characters however weren't developed to any great detail and were more used as a caricature of prejudices and the different classes in society to enable the reader to understand more the type of world they were living in. Many of them didn't actually come across as really being good or evil; they just accepted what was happening and accepted it because that was how society "worked". These characters and some of the overall political information being fed to the reader I think were being used to show how Britain itself was slowly slipping into a fascist state.

The end of the novel did leave a rather nasty taste in my mouth, and actually left me a little disheartened. It does fit with the tone and feeling of the overall novel, but I can't say I was really expecting it. I really think the future for Britain itself was looking bleak and dangerous by the final pages. I suspect I will now pick up the remaining books in this series just to see if there will be some sort of light at the end of the tunnel or not.

Overall, I really did enjoy reading this book; it was interesting to read a mystery novel set in this fascinating and well written alternate Britain that Jo Walton had created. The book does have quite a slow pace as you can sometimes expect in mystery novels, however it isn't dull, the world and characters are slowly fleshed out as you progress which did manage to keep me reading. I do think this book will appeal to quite a lot of different people, obviously I think that people who enjoy Alternate History books should enjoy this book on at least some level. In addition, I also think people who enjoy non-contemporary crime writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie will also enjoy this book even.
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on 28 January 2011
What a great discovery this book is. Let's not worry about what box it needs to fit into - it's a ripping yarn which to me is the best type of book, who cares whether it's a mystery, sci fi or just plain fiction - even my library can't decide where to classify it so why should we worry?!

The plot is essentially - in an alternate history of Britain, which diverged from our own history in 1941, a murder has occurred in a country house and Scotland Yard are sent to investigate. The key difference in history is that a truce has been negotiated with Nazi Germany, ending World War II in 1941. Britain now enjoys good relations with Third Reich and is conveniently turning a blind eye to the disappearances of Jews on the continent.

To start with the difference between the world of Farthing and our own is not apparent. This is a period novel set in a world of aristocracy which most of us know nothing about and initially the historical divergence is disguised by the unfamiliarity of the world of luncheons and riding. But gradually the subtle differences become apparent - the blatant racism towards Jews at first could pass as the prejudices of the aristocracy, but eventually it becomes clear that the shift in temperament is universal and driven from the very top.

As the novel progresses, the tone gradually darkens and Jo Walton does a wonderful job of effecting a seismic shift from tea parties to an insidious foretaste of the novels to come.

I loved the tone in which JW voices the lead character, Lucy, which seems so correct for the period. My only real criticism of the book is that the relationship between Lucy and her husband is ever-so-slightly implausible, but the fact that the main character's husband is a Jew is pivotal to the story so this is forgivable.

In summary, this is a great page turner which works well as a novel in its own right. The ending is so true to the world JW has created that it just seems right, even as you lament it. Read and I'm sure you'll want to read the sequels.
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on 24 May 2015
Sir James Thirkie lies dead, a dagger in his chest. Many of those staying at the country house for the weekend party he'd been invited to had cause to want him so. So far, so very Agatha Christie. So far and no further. Jo Walton's creation is a much darker world than that in which Miss Marple operated. For one thing, the dagger in Sir James' chest is holding a yellow Star of David in place.

This murder takes place in a Britain of the late 1940s which has been at peace for seven years after Churchill was overthrown by the (fictional) 'Farthing set' within the Conservative Party. They succeeded in negotiating a peace with Hitler, a peace that still holds despite Hitler retaining control of the continent. Indeed, Nazi Germany's hold grows stronger and its influence and policies are seeping across the Channel. It's into this world that Inspector Carmichael (and the reader) is plunged after Thirkie's body is discovered.

I love alternate history ('what ifs'), and this is an extremely good example of it. Walton creates a plausible and sinister world which is more often hinted at than stated outright. Much remains as our own was so when the alternate world makes itself felt, it keeps the power to shock. However, these imagined worlds should only ever be - as here - the context for the novel; the book still has to be driven by the story and this is one that keeps the reader engaged throughout.

It's written with a dual narrative, with alternate chapters voiced first in the first person, through Lucy Eversley, the strong-willed but somewhat naïve adult daughter of the owners of Farthing, and then in the third person, following Carmichael's investigation. This may grate with some who could regard it as an unnecessary device but I thought it worked well. One reason I did is because the two characters in question are by some way the most developed. Had the strands been wound round two who are more straight-forward stereotypes, that might have been different. That said, even those drawn in more primary colours are entirely believable and the dialogue in particular is excellent throughout.

It's difficult to review a novel without giving too much away. Suffice to say that given that as the country house in question was Farthing itself, this is more than a simple murder mystery; the future of the government and perhaps the country itself lie at stake.

What Walton does very well is to slowly crank up the tension and sense of threat, as Carmichael gets closer to solving the case and as the emerging fascism-by-stealth becomes more and more oppressive. Likewise, the character development as the respond to that threat is impressive. I could take issue with some of the specific alternate world details but then that's one of the joys of alternate history: there is no right or wrong view as to what would have happened.

This is the first book in the trilogy. I am very much looking forward to reading the other two.
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on 16 October 2014
“Farthing” by Jo Walton is the first part of a trilogy set in post war Britain. However, this is not Britain as we know it. Jo Walton has created an alternative history - one in which peace was made with Hitler in the early 1940s. The book is set in the late 40s and starts out as a fairly standard murder mystery, featuring a country house called Farthings, a powerful group of people, known as the Farthing Set and a Scotland Yard Inspector, named Carmichael. Thrown into this mix is a newly married, controversial couple named Lucy and David Kahn. Lucy is the daughter of the landed gentry who own the house and her marriage to Jewish banker, David Kahn, has caused much consternation.

The story develops as murder mysteries do, but then the author brings a darker tone to the novel. There is a political shake up, which results in a new Prime Minister, who plans to tighten up on laws. These new measures are likely to impact on the Jewish population and any other people who speak against the government.

To say more about the plot would reveal too much of the story, but I can say that I found the setting to be convincing. I did feel that the characters lacked some depth, but enjoyed the little details about their attitudes, which I felt were authentic.

However, there was one point that annoyed me so much that I nearly gave up on the book! This may seem pedantic, but the farthing, which is referred to throughout the novel, does not have a robin on one of its faces. The bird that was to be found on this very small British coin was the wren. There is also reference in the book to James the First having his head chopped off. This king died in his bed; Charles the First was the decapitated king! It is possible that the author deliberately changed these details, thinking that as her setting is an alternative Britain, this was acceptable. For me, there is more power in using the correct facts where reference is made to earlier times.

Although these details niggled, I have to say that I enjoyed “Farthing”. I wanted to know the outcome of the murder investigation and how it would impact on the lives of those involved. I have the other two novels in the trilogy and will be reading them, as I’m intrigued to know how this “different” Britain will develop over time.
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on 28 June 2008
This is apparently a science fiction book. I mean, it must be, it's been nominated for the Nebula and all! And it's published by Tor! Of course it's sci-fi! Well, no, it's not. While it does use the common sci-fi trope of being set in an alternate history (and a rather pedestrian one at that - peace between Britain and Germany in 1941) the story itself is just a country-house detective mystery, with political meddling. A fairly competently executed one too. While it's obvious from the start whodunnit (or at least oneofwhodunnit) the whydunnit isn't clear at first, and it's fun to see the investigation flail around a bit. On the other hand, the characters are a bit two-dimensional and stereotyped. Stupid aristocrats. Nasty aristocrats. Good copper with a hidden past. Nasty Nazis. And the Jewish hero is, of course, a banker. In summary, worth reading, but wait for the paperback. The book is apparently the first in a trilogy, I'll give the second installment a try.
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on 9 August 2015
No-one is more surprised than me that I've given "Farthing" five stars because for the first 20 pages or so I wondered why I was reading this book as it made no sense at all and was most definitely not my cup of tea! However somewhere over the next 50 pages I was drawn in and honestly couldn't put it down, loved every page.
As other reviewers have said it is a classic murder thriller and the premise is even more traditional but that's where any similarities end. The story is told via two perspectives Carmicheal (the thoughtful detective) and Lucy Kahn (the main suspects wife) and the book really did draw me in from both angles. The ending really throws you back to the time-set of the book, no fairytale ending here but it didn't matter this was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I will definitely be moving onto book 2 in this series!!
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on 26 February 2014
I came across this book by chance. I do enjoy What if? books and this one assumes an aristocratic party made peace with Nazi Germany in 1941. The story is set in 1949 at a weekend house party at the home of one of the leading lights of the aristocratic party when another of the group is murdered. In one sense it is a traditional who dunnit with a detective from Scotland Yard sent to investigate and who gradually uncovers what has occurred. However, it is also set against what is revealed as the machinations of the rather sinister fascist state Britain has become and I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it as a jolly good read.
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on 20 June 2014
This is a classic murder mystery, a gripping page turner with great atmosphere, believable characters and superb writing. But it is so much more. Since reading it (and starting part two of the trilogy) I have learned it comes under the genre of alternative history rather than crime. I have seen Jo Watling described as a science fiction writer. Quite frankly, with a book as outstanding as this, genres are irrelevant. I can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy.
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