I had access to a very limited set of books while on holiday in Scotland, as my Kindle Paperwhite decided to become a Paperweight by forgetting all my books while I had no internet access to download the files again, and I didn’t take any print books with me. The iPad, fortunately, had a good chunk of my digital TBR — but mostly science fiction and fantasy, from the old Baen and Tor free book giveaways. So the book I chose doesn’t fit the monthly theme (current and former RITA award nominees. If anything, this book would have been a potential entry in the Novel with Romantic Elements category, which is being eliminated after this year. That saddens me, as those books ate often among my favorites, cross-genre reader that I am.
Farthing is the first book in Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy, published in 2006. It’s an alternate history series, set in England after a negotiated peace with Hitler has left most of mainland Europe in Nazi control. It’s a murder mystery, and the murder victim is the architect of the peace agreement. The two main point-of-view characters are the daughter of a powerful political family who has shocked everyone by marrying a Jewish man and the closeted gay detective assigned to the case — homosexuality is still a hanging offense, and the attitude towards Jews is worsening, at least in part because of the decision to leave Hitler in power and allow his persecutions to continue. There’s an underground movement to help European Jews escape (they go to Canada or Australia, as the USA doesn’t want them either). All in all, it’s not a pretty version of events. It’s chilling.
Walton is a fine writer, so this book gripped me from the outset, even though it isn’t upbeat. The atmosphere, of politics, discrimination and (of course) murder, is pretty grim at times, but many of the characters are quite likable and even heroic, standing up against the prevailing attitudes as best they can. The plot is compelling, the twists are good, and although the overall story is pretty bleak, I really enjoyed reading it. The later books deal with different sets of characters and some recurring ones, I gather from the descriptions; I want to read them despite their high ebook price tags (at least they are free of DRM), because I see hope that the grim situation may possibly get so much worse that good people will be compelled to take stronger action.
As in the other books of hers that I’ve read, Walton is a genius with flawed characters, human frailty, and the motivations of power, greed, survival, honor, and love. Plus she’s both an eloquent writer and a terrific storyteller, that most welcome combination. I highly recommend this book.