Posted by : atcampbell | On : March 18, 2008

Farthing by Jo Walton

Twelve people attended this meeting at A.T.’s house. Our topic was Farthing, an alternate history set in England in the 1940s. In the world of this book, the US never entered World War II, leading to Germany taking control of continental Europe and signing a peace treaty with the United Kingdom. At a weekend gathering of the rich and powerful at an English country estate, a prominent politician is killed. The plot of the book revolves around the murder investigation. Only one of us had read Walton before. Ten of us started the book, and nine finished it.

A few readers felt that the alternate history element was the book’s strongest feature. They felt the theme of this book was how much people will take and let happen. They noted the book’s deliberate references to The Man in the High Castle, SS-GB, and The Sound of His Horn, and commented on similarities to Fatherland and The Summer Isles. One member suggested that the novel was a reaction to 9/11, but others felt it was more a reaction to the Iraq War.

A couple of us enjoyed the novel quite a bit. They liked how the book started smart and fluffy, but ended deadly serious. One felt the book had a realistic portrayal of human nature. Another commented positively on the book’s portrayal of the English class system. They expressed a fascination for the world of this book, and want to see more of it.

Several people liked Walton’s writing. We felt the opening was strongly written, and the two alternating viewpoint characters had strong narrative voices.

The mystery fans in our group felt that Farthing‘s mystery element started well, but ultimately did not succeed. One reader commented that the mystery aspect fizzled about halfway through. Another noted that the message of a mystery should be “justice will be done,” and this book did not provide that. Also, the ultimate answers of “who, how, and why” for the murders seemed too contrived.

One reader said that our group had been having a nice run of discussing good books, but Farthing drove it to a screeching halt. He found Walton’s prose hard to read, and felt that her prose did not do justice to the locations it described. He was unhappy with the character development. He found the book was neither entertaining nor educational, and that the ending was depressing and bad. He also felt the author needed to do more research about trains. He does not plan to read Jo Walton again.

Finally, we had a member whose impression of the book was somewhat of a middle ground. He liked the characterization and felt the alternate history worked well. He liked the book’s portrayal of a tipping point in history, and felt the book’s ending was the honest conclusion of the story. He thought the book’s portrayal of a powerful circle was convincing. He found the book’s major failing to be the police procedural aspect. As he finished his comments, a couple of people said they wished they had read the book he’d just described.

Overall, we found Farthing to be an ambitious but only partial successful novel. A couple of people in our group will definitely read the sequel, Ha’penny, and an equal number will avoid it. The book provided us with an interesting discussion. After the meeting, several of us had a nice dinner at Mimi’s Cafe.

–A. T. Campbell, III