Farthing by Jo Walton: B-

From the back cover:
Jo Walton crosses genres without missing a beat with this stunningly powerful alternative history set in 1949, eight years after Britain agreed to peace with Nazi Germany, leaving Hitler in control of the European continent. A typical gathering at the country estate of Farthing of the power elite who brokered the deal is thrown into turmoil when the main negotiator, Sir James Thirkie, is murdered, with a yellow star pinned to his chest with a dagger.

The author deftly alternates perspective between Lucy Kahn, the host’s daughter, who has disgraced herself in her family’s eyes by marrying a Jew, and Scotland Yard Inspector Peter Carmichael, who quickly suspects that the killer was not a Bolshevik terrorist. But while the whodunit plot is compelling, it’s the convincing portrait of a country’s incremental slide into fascism that makes this novel a standout.

I’m a fan of England, mysteries, and gay-themed literature, so I expected that Farthing would be my cup of tea. As it turns out, I was quite disappointed. Though the majority of my complaint can be summed up as, “It was just kind of weirdly put together,” there are some specific areas that bothered me enough to merit their own place on a spiffy numbered list.

1. Punctuation.
I’m starting with the most minor quibble, though it did truly bug me. A couple of times there were lists of buildings or people that were improperly punctuated. Here is an example:

There was a church, larger than most, a pub, the Eversley Arms, a row of cottages, and a high wall containing a pair of wrought-iron gates…

The way that’s written, the pub and the Eversley Arms appear to be two different things. There should be a semicolon after “most,” as well as after “Arms” and “cottages.” Because of this, a later list of attendees at the gathering had me confused as to whether Lucy’s dad and the Earl of Hampshire were the same person.

2. Woefully undeveloped gay characters.
There are, if I counted correctly, eight nominally gay or bisexual characters in this book, nine if you count Lucy’s deceased brother. For some, that’s practically all that’s known about them. Frankly, it started to get ridiculous. I’m beyond cool with having gay characters, but just having a cardboard cut-out standing there with a nametag reading “Gay” on his chest does not really count.

3. A pretty boring mystery.
The investigation into this mystery was kind of meh, with Inspector Carmichael and his sergeant doing a lot of theorizing in advance of the facts. It also seemed to hinge on locating one particular girl from a photograph who, when found, blurted out the culprit pretty anticlimactically. Granted, it was obvious by that point, anyway. The impact of the increasingly fascist government upon the investigation was kind of interesting, as Carmichael had to keep in mind that whomever he arrested would be hanged (and so he had better be absolutely certain before arresting them), but also frustrating, since the innocent Jewish fellow everyone kept insisting was guilty (even when presented with evidence to the contrary) was one of the few likable characters in the book.

When I try to recall something I particularly liked, I come up empty. The conclusion was decent enough, I suppose, though the final chapter from Lucy’s point of view ended rather ominously. I will probably finish up the rest of the trilogy, because I am a completist and because I hope it gives more closure on the Lucy front. I think the other books might feature different characters, though, so I shan’t hold my breath. Neither shall I expect to enjoy them any more than I did Farthing.

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  1. I’m beyond cool with having gay characters, but just having a cardboard cut-out standing there with a nametag reading “Gay” on his chest does not really count.

    Hee. That made me giggle.

  2. I aim to amuse! 🙂

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