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C J Sansom is probably best known for his historical novels featuring Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake. Occasionally, however, he takes a break from that and writes about other periods. His last venture such (Winter in Madrid) left me a little cold (pardon the pun) and wondering whether he was capable of writing interesting, non-Shardlake books. Dominion answers that doubt in some style.
The year is 1953. After making peace with Germany in 1940, Britain is now a single-party right wing state. Germany's Nazi Party, led by Hitler has a great deal of influence in Britain, including an SS Headquarters in London. The British resistance, led by Churchill, has spies everywhere and becomes aware of a valuable secret held by a brilliant academic locked away in a lunatic asylum. Two Resistance spies are charged with freeing the man and smuggling him to America before the Germans learn his secret.
Dominion is an "alternative history" book, a novel of intrigue and espionage set in a world that never was, but might well have been. It's not an original concept - Robert Harris did something similar in Fatherland - but Sansom makes it feel very special. The narrative is straightforward and easy to follow, but it keeps you gripped throughout and has a hidden depth. The fictional "historical" setting is utterly convincing and chillingly plausible.
What makes it so convincing is that Sansom doesn't just change big historical "facts". So, whilst there are some obvious differences (Hitler didn't commit suicide in 1945 and is still in charge of the Nazi Party), there are also plenty of little details that add to the atmosphere and show what a different world we would have lived in had Hitler succeeded in defeating Britain. It's clear that Sansom has done a lot of research into the events of 1939-40 and then come up with a convincing alternative of how things might have been if just one or two incidents had turned out differently.
The altered historical setting is not just a backdrop for the plot; but an essential part of it. Britain is operating under a climate of fear, where neighbour spies upon neighbour and no-one can trust anyone else. This has an impact on the behaviour of characters within the book itself and the direction of the plot.
Despite the convincing detail, it's the characters which really make the book work. Sansom creates carefully nuanced characters and each one feels like a fully fleshed out individual. Unlike many modern novelists, Sansom doesn't just throw you straight into the action, he takes his time to build and develop his characters. Their psychological make-up and outlook is as crucial to the outcome of the book as the events themselves.
Sansom - rightly - lavishes a lot of attention on all his characters, good and bad, so that you understand their ideologies, even if you don't agree with them. Nor is he judgemental. Whilst clearly despising the Nazis, he treats them with as much care as the Resistance ones. The main German character, for example, is surprisingly sympathetic, despite being a dyed in the wool and committed Nazi. It's no mean feat to achieve this but there were times when I genuinely felt sorry for him because he is just an ordinary person doing what he genuinely believes is right, however misguided those beliefs might be.
Inevitably, it's the Resistance characters that really attract your sympathy, and it's here that Sansom's focus on characters really pays off. They feel like old friends and you fear for their safety. Sansom uses this well, playing with the readers' emotions and constantly ratcheting up the tension so that by the end, your nerves will be shredded. The sense of tension throughout is palpable and the book keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.
Sansom has an excellent writing style and knows exactly how to fashion a novel that people want to read. He builds the tension slowly, gradually drip feeding more and more information to the reader so that things start to become apparent and he builds in regular (but subtle) cliff-hangers that keep you in suspense. Chapters are deliberately kept relatively short (usually under 20 pages) and this also keeps you reading. You reach the end of one chapter and are so engrossed that you want to keep reading to find out what happens next. Despite its length, this is one of those books that you would happily sit and read from cover to cover.
Length is, perhaps, the one thing that might put some people off. The hardback edition is almost 600 pages, so it's something of a brick and looks a little daunting initially. As soon as I started reading it, I was immediately gripped and could scarcely put it down. 600 pages just flew by and it was almost with a sense of regret that I read the final pages.
The single downside I can think of comes with the Author notes at the end. Whilst these start off interesting they slowly turn into something of a personal rant against the Scottish National Party and the quest for Scottish independence; a subject Sansom clearly feels very strongly about. They left me feeling slightly uncomfortable and the preachy tone of them sat ill with the rest of the book.
Dominion is relatively new (October 2012) so copies it will still cost around £10 for the hardback/Kindle edition. It's well worth investing in, though, as it's a gripping title that you will want to read repeatedly.
C J Sansom
(C) copyright SWSt 2013
Dominion is an alternate history novel by English writer CJ Sansom, it depicts a post second world war where England made peace with Nazi Germany in 1940 and now in 1952 is a satellite state of the larger German empire. Germany is still at war with Russia and America is neutral, there is a general acceptance of German rule by the majority of the British however the resistance is led by Churchill who disagreed with the peace treaty in 1940.
CJ Sansom is one of my favourite authors, famous for his Matthew Shardlack series set in Henry VIII's time he is one of the better historical writers and here enters the world of alternate history. This book tells the story of David Fitzgerald, a middle class clerk who works for the government, he is married and a secretly a half Jew on his mother's side. He is also working for the resistance copying sensitive papers and generally keeping them informed over the government's decisions concerning British overseas countries and their acceptance of German influence. The book also begins with one of David's old university friend going a bit crazy attacking his influential American based brother and is sent to the asylum talking about ending the world.
The great skill in this novel is writing a thriller set in an alternate 50's Britain; many of the features are the same but slightly altered. We have a country ruled as a puppet state by Lord Beaverbrook who gives up the nations Jews for increased trade with Germany, resistance to German rule is increasing and there is a sense of how Britain would have turned out if it was controlled by Nazi Germany.
The book starts off using the steady and solid lives of David to look at Britain controlled by Germany, it soon moves into a standard thriller David and a resistance team break Frank out of the insane asylum and now the book becomes a chase between the British and the German SS. Each turn used by the resistance is slowly cracked by the SS and we have a classic cat and mouse tale, all coming together on a beach on the south coast.
I enjoyed this novel, it had the classic CJ Sansom traits of complexity but readability, and there were enough plot twists and believable action to make the story come alive. It could perhaps have done with a little editing as I felt is dragged in the middle third a little and became a bolt hole survival story for a while. However, the ending was dramatic and exciting and the author had clearly researched how an alternate Britain could have come about so we have the rise of nationalism, a restricted press and a sense of oppression. The Jewish question is used as a plot strand but not over exploited for reasons of shocking the reader, this aspect was used cleverly and David's Jewish ancestry was well used.
This once again confirmed in my mind that CJ Sansom is one of the better writers around, he consistently produces superb novels and I can't recommend him highly enough.