Farthing by Jo Walton

2006. Tor. Hardcover. 319 pages.

From: the library

In a nutshell:

In the alternate universe of the Small Change trilogy, of which Farthing is the first book, England made peace with Hitler, and continental Europe remains under German rule.

The Farthing set, a group of political insiders who orchestrated the peace agreement, gathers at the Eversley country estate. The invited guests include Lucy and David Kahn. Lucy is the daughter of the Eversley’s and her husband is Jewish. When one of the Farthing set is murdered, it soon becomes clear to Lucy and the London inspector Carmichael, that David Kahn is being set up to take the fall for the crime.

The book switches between Lucy’s first-person perspective, and Carmichael’s third-person perspective to reveal the machinations and intrigue that are behind the murder.


I appreciated having both Lucy and Carmichael’s viewpoints in the book. I especially admired how Walton never allows either Lucy or Carmichael to have the whole picture. For instance, Carmichael learns early on the true time and cause of death of the dead man, but even to the end of the book, Lucy still only knows about the first assumed cause of death – that the man died of a stab wound. And Lucy knows the true nature of the guests’ interpersonal relationships, the details of which never are fully revealed to Carmichael. It’s refreshing to have a mystery where the characters don’t come across as a little too omniscient. Both Lucy and Carmichael are intelligent and even prescient at times, but they are still limited in understandable, human ways.

I was not quite as chilled by the alternate universe setting as I think the book was aiming for, but there is one little chilling scene between Lucy and a servant in her parents’ household. Lucy realizes that the servant is enjoying a little power trip, on account of Lucy’s husband being Jewish and under suspicion of the police. There is a small and sad story arc in the character of David Kahn, a man who loves England and believes that the country can remain good but soon realizes that his faith in England’s moral superiority has been betrayed. (I kept an eye out for references to the American alternate universe and can only remember two references: our President was Lindbergh and there was not safe harbor for Jewish refugees in the United States.)

From reading other reviews, Lucy’s character seemed to divide readers. Generally I liked her, although the whole part of her “knowing” that she was pregnant at the moment of conception seemed rather silly to me. But otherwise, I found her believable in her reaction to her family and to events. I did like reading about a married couple that are quite happy with each other, even if that couple is under siege. David might be a little good to be true by being a banker who does microlending (Alternate history or not, that detail still seemed anachronistic. But hey, I don’t really know the history of microlending, so that’s just my perception.)

I don’t feel compelled to rush out and read the second two books of the trilogy though I do plan on getting around to them. Apparently one of them is a shout-out to the Mitfords, of whom I have only passing knowledge. I kind of feel like I want to read a book by or about the Mitfords before reading that Small Change book. I know it’s not necessary, but I think it might add to my enjoyment.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

In Which Our Hero – “Kudos especially to Walton for not wimping out in the final chapters; the ending is not entirely happy, but it perfectly suits the bleak vision of the story.”

The OF Blog – “But despite this slipping of the metaphorical mask on occasion, Farthing was one of the better alternate histories of this fascinating and often horrifying time period that I have read.”

Shelf Love – “My one real criticism of this novel was that I wished Walton had made her characters a little less black-and-white. Generally speaking, there are the Farthing set, who are not just greedy for power, but personally selfish, vicious, cruel, and bigoted, and there are the others, who are generous, loving, sensible, and kind.”


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5 responses to “Farthing by Jo Walton

  1. I read one of Walton’s other books this year (Tooth and Claw). I really enjoyed it. I hope to start this series soon.

  2. aartichapati

    I really want to read Jo Walton, particularly Tooth and Claw, which Linda mentions above. I think I would really enjoy it, though this one seems like a great premise, too.

  3. I’ve been meaning to read this series for ages, but now I wonder if I should read the Mitfords first. I know it’s not necessary, but if it makes me enjoy these more it sounds worth it. Plus I +had* been meaning to read them anyway.

  4. buriedinprint

    I haven’t noted this series before, but the author’s name has definitely caught my attention, and this sounds really intriguing. Like you, I often find that I want to read the “other” books that seem to circle around the reads you have right in front of you; I like that sense of getting a complete picture, even if it’s — literally — all in my head.

  5. Linda and aarti – Tooth and Claw may be the one I’ve seen most highly praised, so maybe while I’m waiting to continue this trilogy, I’ll slide over to Tooth and Claw as my next Jo Walton.

    nymeth – Yeah, I keep meaning to read the Mitfords anyway, so maybe by making them ‘necessary’ reading, I’ll finally get around to them!

    buriedinprint – There is one occasion where I did not follow my instinct to read the “other” book. Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog references both in the title and in the story, the novel Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. I wavered on reading Willis’ book before reading Jerome K. Jerome’s and ended up going for it anyway, because I was reading it as part of an informal book meeting. I still loved the Willis book, but I think I’ll have to reread it once I get around to reading the Jerome book.

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