While I love me some Sword & Sorcery or Epic Fantasy, I also find myself often bewailing the many wasted chance in this genre: Fantasy – as the name already should indicate but so very often it turns out to be a misnomer – offers so many possibilities to the imaginative authors, and yet most of would give your average Harlequin Romance a run when it comes to sticking with a true-and-trusted formula. There are exceptions; but they are rare and one has to go looking for them.
Novels by Jo Walton are one of those exceptions, she is an author who has consistently pushed the boundaries of the Fantasy genres and uses formulas only to play with them in surprising ways. Farthing starts out not as Fantasy at all, but as Cozy Mystery, i.e. the kind of mystery that takes (mostly British) crime novels of the 30s and 40s (by the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers or Josephine Tey) as its model and is characterized by a closed, usually upper-class setting (country houses are the classic here, but exotic locations are also popular, the Orient Express probably the most famous of them) and a general lack of violence and sex. Jo Walton goes to far as to not only use the structure and setting of a cozy mystery but even to have it take place in the period from which the genre originated, namely 1949.
The narrative, of course, starts off with a murder in a country house and is told from two points of view: there is the perspective of the investigating police officer Carmichael and of the daughter of the country house’s owners, Lucy. Carmichael’s chapters, with him being a policeman and an outsider, are written in distancing third person, Lucy’s chapters, her being part of the “set” and in the midst of things, in first person perspective, and with the latter in particular Jo Walton does a really excellent job of precisely nailing the tone of the period (and the tone of the cozy mystery genre), her protagonist freely oscillating between sharp witticism and vapid chatter.
Things appear to be all set for a delightful, if not particularly original genre romp – until Jo Walton starts to slowly but inexorably spoil the fun. For as the reader gradually becomes aware, the 1949 of Farthing is not the 1949 as we know it, but a 1949 where the United States never entered the Second World War, and Britain, finding itself unable to continue battling Nazi Germany on its own, accepted Rudolf Hess’ peace offering in 1941. As a consequence, the Third Reich is thriving, albeit locked in a seemingly endless struggle with Soviet Russia, while Britain remains the only part of Europe not occupied by the Nazis.
Farthing, then, is not just a Cozy Mystery, but also an Alternative History novel (which would make it either Fantasy or Science Fiction – common opinion appears to tend towards the latter, while I personally am more inclined towards the former) and as the reader watches the plot gradually unfurl, with both Carmichael and Lucy with their own methods (and their own motives) searching for the culprit, the alternative history starts to slowly nibble away at the cozy mystery, with things becoming more and more uncomfortable until the last vestiges of coziness evaporate as circumstances decline even further towards the outright bleak. It becomes increasingly obvious that the Britain of Farthing, even though it may not be part of the Third Reich, it has not remained unaffected by it, and has developed its own homegrown brand of fascism which eat away even the foundations of the mystery genre.
And not only does Jo Walton stand the cozy mystery on its head (or, probably more correctly, from its head on its feet) but by the end of the novel our own present starts to shine through the novel’s fabricated history, and the reader is left asking just how alternative the world described in Farthing really is.
In Farthing, Jo Walton proves once again that Fantasy can do fascinating things even without elves and dragons (although she has demonstrated in Tooth & Claw that she can do unusual things involving dragons, too) if it just dares to veer off the trodden path. The novel really stands very well on its own, but is the first volume of a trilogy which I am eager to check out the rest of.