Alternate histories often give me the heebie-jeebies. While certainly the brand of speculative fiction that comes closest to our "real world," I still have much of the professional historian in me, making it difficult for me to read alternate histories without resorting to my academic training. Examining a writing as a text and seeking out every single flaw or failure to elaborate upon questions raised by the methodological approaches can take much of the joy of reading out of these works. And when the alternate history at hand touches so much upon my own area of specialization, the Nazi era (although to be honest, I concentrated on religious/cultural history of the late Weimar/pre-WWII Nazi period in Germany), it makes it difficult for me to believe that the author can construct a plausible tale without resorting to distortions or obvious references to "our" history of that time period.
So it was a great relief to see that for the most part, Jo Walton manages to avoid those pitfalls in her opening novel to an alternative history trilogy set in Great Britain. This novel, the Nebula-nominated Farthing, smartly eschews (at least for this opening book in the trilogy) examining the "what if" possibilities too much at depth. The reader learns very quickly that in this setting, Great Britain and Nazi Germany came to a peace agreement "with honor" in 1941, eight years prior to the beginning of the story. Winston Churchill failed to stop a "peace party" from arising in his party and the architect of that peace deal, Sir James Thirkie, assumes control.
But when the story begins, Thirkie is found dead, stabbed to death, with the dagger pinning down a yellow star akin to those the Jews of the Nazi-occupied lands were forced to wear. The body is discovered by an English Jew named David Kahn and this leads into an investigation into the murder that quickly seems to implicate the highest officials of the British government.
Walton tells this murder mystery using two perspectives: the first-person PoV of Lucy Kahn, David's wife who is the black sheep of her family for marrying a Jew, and Scotland Yard inspector Peter Carmichael. It is their interactions amid a backdrop of whispered accusations about Bolshevik terrorists, nefarious Jewish plots, and even more sinister accusations about certain characters that makes Farthing rise above the mechanistic "what if" scenario playing that often passes for alternate history. What happens in a world where one country knows that it exists at the whim of another? How would that affect political and social views? How did one democratic nation slide forward willingly into authoritarianism? And can it happen again?
These are but some of the questions that underlie the plot developments in Farthing. In just over 300 mass-market paperback pages, Walton poses these questions without being too direct, instead allowing the characters to raise them in a "natural" setting amid the cloak-and-dagger events that transpire during the story. Lucy and Carmichael have distinct voices and ways of approaching the world, and it is their personalities that make it easier to let go of what one knows of the past and to instead see the historical backdrop as being anything but inevitable or, conversely, false.
But yet the story does on occasion resort to the rather simplistic device of hinting at what we already "know" has happened elsewhere: the reports of the Jewish factory workers and their "disappearances," as well as the occasional mention of "gas" only served to break the spell for me and to remind me just how difficult it is to maintain a simulacrum of history. But despite this slipping of the metaphorical mask on occasion, Farthing was one of the better alternate histories of this fascinating and often horrifying time period that I have read. Highly recommended.
Publication Date: August 8, 2006 (US), Hardcover; August 28, 2007, Paperback.