Phil Parker (tigertoy) wrote,
Phil Parker

Book review: Farthing

Today's book review is Farthing by Jo Walton.

Although set in a reasonable alternate history setting, this is really a political fable.  It's a quaint little story about how the aristocracy lives, but just at the point where I was getting bored enough that I was asking myself why I was bothering to read it, the real story took off, and it wasn't the least bit boring any more.  Far, far too scary.  Things couldn't happen exactly like that, in America today.  But they really could happen so nearly like that that post-alternate-World War II Britain isn't nearly far enough for comfort.

This isn't a fun book, but I think it's an important one.  Anyone who can read it without being uncomfortable has something wrong with them.  If I say more, this will stop being a book review and become a political post.  9 out of 10.


We start with Lucy, our first viewpoint character, personally narrating her story of a weekend at Farthing Castle, the estate where a bunch of Tory aristocrats (the Farthing Set) are having a party.  It's really rather uncomfortable, because Lady Eversley (Lucy's mother and the real leader of the Farthing Set) does not get along well with her daughter, as said daughter is not sufficiently obedient.  She married David Kahn, a Jewish banker, instead of some blue-blooded second cousin.  It's all gossip and tea party stuff, until James Thirkie, who's a great political hero because he negotiated a peace treaty with Hitler that ended the War, ends up dead.  (Apparently Pearl Harbor never happened in this world; America never joined the War, and the Continent fell to the Third Reich, but because Adolph wanted to go toe-to-toe with Stalin, Hess negotiated a peace treaty, which Thirkie got credit for in Britain.)  Then we alternate chapters between Lucy and Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard.

Thirkie's body was staged to make it look, to a very stupid observer, like he was stabbed by a vengeful Jew.  (He actually died by gas, but a Jewish star was stuck to his body with a dagger, and the body was covered with blood-colored lipstick.)  It's leaked to the press, and there's hints that the police are supposed to swallow it, but Carmichael is too honest.  Then Lucy and her father go out riding and are shot at by a "Bolshevik sniper", whom Lord Eversley shoots back with the shotgun he was carrying and kills.  The police manage to follow this lead to the sniper's girlfriend, who is willing to talk, but Carmichael's boss at Scotland Yard is fed more "evidence" -- this time, that the star was bought in France by someone who identified himself as David Kahn and gave Kahn's address.  Carmichael talks to the dowager Lady Thirkie, who is willing to testify in court about what her daughter told her before she flew the coop with her chauffeur.  Because Carmichael tipped off the Kahns, they run from Farthing, stealing Lady Eversley's jewels (which unexpectedly include a very valuable heirloom diamond), and by being clever and with the help of Lucy's old governess (the woman who actually raised Lucy, and with whom Lucy has much more of a mother-daughter bond than with her real mother), they escape on a boat to Canada accompanied by three Jewish orphans who were spirited out of the country.

The scary stuff is that the murder of Thirkie and the attempt on Lord Eversley were used to attract sympathy in a leadership vote to put a Farthing Set Prime Minister in, who uses the "emergency" to put in a bunch of "security reforms" like changing the structure of government (eliminating the troublesome practice of Parliamentary votes of no confidence) and requiring national photo ID cards with the bearer's religion listed.  And the way Carmichael is blackmailed by his boss into forgetting the evidence that he's put together that Kahn is innocent and the Prime Minister and his allies did the whole thing -- the bad guys already killed the "sniper"'s wife and they're about to arrnage to blow up Lady Thirkie and her estate if she doesn't agree to keep quiet as well.
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