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Monday, July 02, 2007

Book Review: Farthing by Jo Walton

This is a powerfully intriguing book that hurts itself in the end. Everything moves so smoothly, and then comes the end and disappointment.
Farthing is an alternate history. It's set in a world that asks the question: What if England made peace with Hitler in WW2 and ceased control of Europe to the Nazis?
Walton does a fantastic job showing a world where Jews are hated not only on the European mainland, but even in America and England. It's a world where the new 'racism' is being Jewish, period. Jews are banned in America, treated unfairly in England, and imprisoned, forced into labor, or killed in Europe (the Continent, the Nazi controlled place).
The story is set in England in the country. Lucy is the daughter of a nobility class known as the Farthing Set--a group of politically like minded nobles of sorts. Her mother hates her, and why is that? Because Lucy has married David Kahn, a Jew. She's practically been outcast by her mother and while her father supports her decision to marry David--for love rather that political gain--it puts considerable strain on family ties. The story starts off in Farthing--where the Farthing Set basically live or socialize. Lucy and her husband have been invited out somewhat suddenly to a party at her parents place--Farthing. Lucy doesn't want to go, but David insists, and they go. One morning it is discovered that one of the Farthing Set has been murdered. In comes Carmichael, a detective from Scotland Yard who soon discovers that this murder is more strange than it seems. Some of the guests are lying right to his face, the nature of the death of the individual is even more peculiar, and the Jewish Star attached to the body suggests to him that someone is trying to frame Kahn.
This rolls out much like an old English mystery and that gives the novel much of its charm. You soon learn that homosexuality is practically illegal in England, yet some of the nobility hide secrets of such actions. The story is very engaging and I found myself truly enjoying the character of Carmichael--he seems to be that sort of charming English chap you want to have around at Christmas.
But the story is killed, I think, in the end. Don't read further, because I will spoil it for you.
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Carmichael figures it all out: the entire Farthing Set, or most of them anyway, conspired to kill the man to raise sympathy for an upcoming vote, and they intended to use the Kahn's as scapegoats. So it's all an elaborate ruse so that the Farthing Set can take over--which they do--and begin a reign of fascism--which they do.
The problem is right in the end. Carmichael finds out one of his witnesses has been murdered--more than a coincidence--and he shows up at the Yard to present his case against Angela--the woman who killed her husband to set off the events mentioned. He presents the case and then he is told that Kahn did it and it would be in his best interest to simply go along with it. Why? Because they know about his secret gay relationship with his servant Jack and because it would be a pity for his career to end with such a scandel. Obviously, the police head is in the pocket of the Farthing Set.
So, what does Carmichael do? Does his show his true integrity and refuse to let in? Nope, exactly the opposite. Walton takes all the integrity of Carmichael and successfully throws it in the trash bin. Carmichael just accepts it, though somewhat unhappily, and just goes on with his life. Excuse me? What kind of BS ending is that? The inspector goes through all the trouble to figure it out only to just forget it...

Now, aside from the ending I would say the book is quite good. Just that darn ending hurts the book...

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4 comments:

  1. There will be a couple of sequels, so this might not be Carmichael's final reaction. (Then again it might - I have no idea what happens in the sequels, other than that he's in them.)

    Also, there really was a whole lot of anti-Semitism in American and England before WWII. I have not only historical evidence for that (not only nonfiction but fiction like Dorothy L. Sayers from that period) but my own parents' memories.

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  2. Anonymous1:26 PM

    Carmichael's reaction is not unrealistic. You seem not to realise that homosexuality was not "virtually illegal in England" - it flat out WAS illegal for men between the 1880s and the late 1960s, and it's not in the least unexpected that Carmichael would want to save his career and reputation. Surely you must have heard of Oscar Wilde's "Ballad of Reading Gaol", written after he was locked up for his sexuality?

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  3. Anonymous3:12 PM

    I agree that I found the ending abrupt -- I totally didn't expect him to cave. But to the credit of the book, I interpreted the reason as not being that he'd lose his career, but that Jack would have been arrested for corrupting an officer or somesuch. Don't have the book in front of me, but I took away the feeling that a threat had been made against Jack.

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  4. It is irrelevant to me whether or not homosexuality was illegal or not. It doesn't matter to me how bad things get, the fact that a character that has been brought up as this amazing person who has more integrity than all of the Farthing Set combined would just cave and lose all integrity in a matter of minutes lends me little room to actually care what happens to Carmichael. I'd much have preferred that he kept quiet and then was abruptly shot on his way to Royston's.
    However, being told that there will be a sequel might prove beneficial. It allows Walton time to explain Carmichael's reactions and potentially allow Carmichael to right himself. I'm willing to wait, read, and see because I was intrigued by the book and did enjoy the story.
    And I do agree that a threat was made against Carmichael. When he caved it wasn't just that he went with it, no, he went further. He didn't think enough about what he could do. Surely his detective mind could have come up with something he could do about what had happened.
    And no, I've not read any of Oscar Wilde's works, though I must say that it is going to be required reading in the near future. I understand the pressure, I just felt it was a waste of a character for Carmichael to just give in. Hopefully there will be a sequel and it will fix things.

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