513 of 527 people found the following review helpful
This is an excellent novel, with convincing characters and a feeling of authenticity about the conditions in Madrid following the Civil War. The story line itself is excellent and exciting, with many parallel threads developing to a conclusion full of suspense and drama. It is both spy novel, and also a love story, but also has great historical interest, showing the situation in Europe at the time, with the risk of Spain allying with the Germans against Britain, and the efforts of British diplomats to avoid this by subtle relationship building with key people in the Spanish government.
I am surprised that an earlier reviewer found the characters stereotyped for I found them totally convincing. Yes, they are people of their time, but their characters are picked out in fine detail and the reader can empathise with them with little difficulty.
The author has conducted meticulous research into the history of the Spanish Civil War and its effects on the various classes of people in Spain. The book shows the great divisions in Spain following the war, and the bitter wounds caused to family and social relationships by the polarisation of the nation into two different sides. I can set this book alongside the very best works of Sebastian Faulkes, John le Carré, Alain Furst etc. This is a very fine book, with a strong story line set in a convincing portrait of Madrid in 1941. Well worth reading.
117 of 121 people found the following review helpful
on 3 December 2010
I have just finished the book and I can only say that it's quite good and enjoyable. I am Spanish and I can appreciate a novel set in Spain on a vey painful time for its history. I think this gets accross quite well, from a human and non biassed perspective. The character's motivations are quite well drawn, and unlike many other reviewers, I felt quite at easy among its characters. It's true that the main heroes don't seem to have pre-set ideologies, by as you keep reading, they end up taking side. This in itself allows for the book to be an initiation, and in this sense, I find it similar with the Shardlake series, where the hero has doubts, puts himself deep questions about politics, religion or love at the same time that he solves crimes. They have also weaknesses, which makes them more human and approachable. Isn't the fact of questioning part of the search itself? Then it should make sense that he questions everything, including himself.
With regards to the story, it is true that sometimes developements are a bit far fetched, but it's not the first time I see this (and most surely not the last). The trick is to read it quickly and get to the end. Perhaps I could agree that there is a twist too many and the long epilogue was not necessary in a novel, but overall for me the most important part of the book is the atmosphere, the interaction among its characters and their feelings more than the spy framework and the resolution of the story. I take from it the danger and the fear and the important bit is whether they get out, not the how.
In reply to some other reviewers about the irritating spanish quotes in the book, I have only found one dialog where there is an error. It says 'malo' where is should say 'mal', regarding the wheather. And I think they (not that many, really) help in picturing the atmosphere about foreigners living somewhere whith a different language.
But the 'malo' nada, I trully recommend it.
130 of 141 people found the following review helpful
on 1 April 2007
I was in Madrid for a conference and I bought this book to read in the evenings. I found it a gripping portrait of what Madrid was like under the newly formed Facist Government (Would it have beeen like it here if the Nazis had won in 1940?). Very atmospheric and belivable descripition of life at that time, however, although the plot works well in the beginning, it becomes rather "stretched" by the end. It shouldn't put you off from reading it, as the novel has a lot a merit. I enoyed it, on the whole, but for the ending, which failed to convince.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
If full page advertisements in magazines, labels like `thriller' or `historical fiction' and talk of the inevitable film adaptation have you swiftly moving along to find something more stimulating, then please pause a moment and give this book the benefit of the doubt. Put simply this is an accomplished novel with a wonderful sense of time and place quite capable of standing on its own merits. Ostensibly the story of the rescue of a British prisoner of war from a secret Spanish labour camp this is really a much more sophisticated exploration of duty: to country, to friends, lovers and conscience: closer to Graham Greene than Ian Fleming. One of the great strengths of the book is the skilful evocation of a shattered and embittered Madrid which affords a brooding backdrop to the unfolding action as omnipotent as Hardy's Egdon Heath. A word of warning: Sansom takes time to establish the motivations and histories of his characters, but patience yields a rich reward as the plot builds to a tremendously tense and exciting climax. Some will find the main protagonists something less than fully rounded characters and not especially likeable, but their dilemmas and the situations they find themselves facing are totally convincing. There is the additional benefit of a genuine insight into the history and politics of Franco's Spain during World War Two as he is courted for support by both the Allies and Axis powers. In this murky, corrupt world of double dealing, ordinary people play out their lives and their tragedies with Sansom offering them an eloquent voice. A book, in short both edifying and entertaining which may leave you wanting more: if so, his Shardlake series is of equal quality. Try Dissolution for starters.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Harry Brett is invalided out of the army (he was at Dunkirk) when old-school-tie influences suggest he takes up a job in intelligence at the British Embassy in Spain. He will ostensibly be a translator as his Cambridge degree was in Languages (Spanish and French). By a strange coincidence the man he is asked to spy on, Sandy Forsyth, is a British exile, an old Rookwood (public school) boy, like himself.
An even greater coincidence unfurls as he meets the woman Forsyth is living with, Barbara, the ex-lover of yet another Rookwoodian, Bernie Piper, who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War while Barbara was working for the Red Cross. Bernie was reported missing, believed killed in that war, but it turns out he is being illegally kept in a Spanish prison camp in the mountains. When the Civil War ended other republicans from the International Brigade were repatriated, but Bernie's records were sabotaged. When Barbara finds this out, through a young Spanish man who approaches her out of the blue, she decides to do all she can to rescue Bernie. Brett, meanwhile is becoming involved with a young, poor Spanish girl.
There is much murky business with betrayal and counter-betrayal as the British and Spanish characters manoeuvre in the dangerous world of Franco's Spain. Underlying these manoeuvres is the fear that Spain may enter the war on the side of the Fascists at any time, which would mean the expulsion of the British Embassy.
This novel is only intermittently exciting and has rather a flat tone of voice and a slow pace throughout. However, the characters are reasonably believable and there is some incisive insight into the complexities of Spanish politics. The city of Madrid, particularly its poorer quarters, is well realised, showing the squalor, distrust and danger that has shattered families and established new fears and anxieties.
The novel ends on a dull note, which rather fits in with what has been a bit of a plodding read with too many coincidences. I much prefer his historical mystery novels which are all enthralling reads
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on 4 August 2011
As somebody who spends a lot of time in Spain, I was keen to read this and learn more about the recent history of the country. And I did learn. I gained a better perspective on the people.
As a story, it started out well but boy, did it soon drag? A good editor would (and should) have trimmed this down by two hundred pages. It did not deliver enough substance to warrant over five hundred. There were lots of non essential details that did nothing to move the plot forward; and how many cigarettes were lit or, in Brett's case, refused? How many coffees drunk?
There was little believable emotion in both Brett's and and Piper's love stories. Maybe they were just cool fish. I certainly didn't care deeply about Barbara and Piper, and Brett's love interest - Sofia - was poorly drawn with no depth.
The writing was peppered with Spanish words and phrases. I speak Spanish but found it distracting. How much worse for those who don't?
This is probably a nit-pick, but I grew tired of the structure of the writing. He frequently starts a chapter in the character's present and then flashes back to something that happened earlier. This regular concertina-ing of time bugged me.
The Mail described it as an `action-packed thriller.' Well, not the version I read. There was very little action and it wasn't all that thrilling. The late reappearance of an apparently heartless character, Forsyth, working under an alias, made me wonder if it was Sansom's iintention to follow up with a sequel where Forsyth takes the lead. If not, I see no point in bringing him back into the story at all.
Probably most disappointing was the ending. After ploughing through 500+ pages, and just when the pace had finally picked up, the climax was like a damp squib. A total anti-climax. `What?!' I said aloud. `Is that it?' I felt that even Sansom had grown tired by the end of his story and rushed the denouement - such as it was. Very unsatisfying.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 1 April 2013
I think the problem with this for me was that I came to it straight from Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and Capital by John Lanchester. In other words, straight after reading two books that were full of research but written by wonderful authors who embed their research in their stories in such a way that you hardly know it's there. Sansom is not in that league. I wanted to like this book, but by page 91 the research and back story were so laboured that I was not just bored but irritated. I soldiered on to the end and it's not a bad book, but I thought I would struggle to give it three stars and in the end I felt it merited only two. It's not completely atrocious, but here is an example taken at random: "`You should go to that party. Relax a bit. Chance to meet some senoritas. God knows there's little enough social life in Madrid. The Maestres are a good family. Connected to the Astors.' `Thank you sir, I might.' Harry wondered what the party would be like." For heaven's sake--that's amateur stuff. Dan Brown could have written that last line. And then we have this: "Through the rough material of his greatcoat his body was hard and firm. It excited her." Well, it would, wouldn't it? In Capital, John Lanchester shows us City bankers without judgement--he simply lets us see what they do and why, and we don't need any nudges from him to know that we are watching some of the greediest and most obnoxious fictional creations for many years. Sansom can't do that--it's like there's a right way to think and a wrong way to think and Sansom feels the need to show us which side he's on and push us to be on the same side. What it comes down to is: he's really not a very good writer. His characters don't really come alive and although the story should be immensely powerful it fails to grip. A nice unchallenging read for the beach, perhaps; sadly, that's not where I was.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 20 February 2007
I thought I was going to enjoy this book greatly, and for the first half I did. Then I felt it fell away.
I'm not sure the author was clear whether he wanted to write a historical, character-based novel about Britons in Spain in 1940, or a straightforward thriller that happened to be set in 1940s Spain. Great effort went into setting up the characters, with mixed results. I bought Brett, but couldn't really accept the other leading characters, especially Piper and Forsyth. Brett's lover never seemed to acquire a real personality other than being just that, his love interest.
The plot and character motivation too often stretched credulity. That's just about acceptable if there is internal consistency within the story, but sometimes I didn't feel the characters' actions were either plausible or consistent. Characters sometimes seemed required to act they way they did in the interests of the plot, not because they had a genuine motivation to do so.
The pacing was also inconsistent. I was happy with the leisurely, detailed depiction of a time and place, and the attempt to flesh out the characters (though that was ultimately flawed). Then when the pace picked up for the denouement, I couldn't help wondering why the author had invested so much effort in the characters and the lead up, when he galloped frantically and rather implausibly for the finishing line with the characters just doing whatever was necessary to get the author to the end of the book.
I certainly don't regret buying or reading it (as reflected in the 3 stars), but did feel I'd have enjoyed it more if the author had just treated it as a shoot-em-up thriller from the start, without the teasing promise that it was going to add up to something more.
Incidentally, the brutal tactics of the Spanish army in Morocco before the Civil War referred to in the novel are well documented. One of the worst incidents was actually attributed to Franco himself in Paul Preston' biography.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 1 March 2007
I felt the setting of the scene within Spain following the Civil War was brilliantly done, the author painting a picture of a country in mourning (for many differant reasons)and the fear and hate that existed.
However when it came to plot lines and the characters itself, I felt the the same care the author had taken with setting was missing. Too many characters were uncomplex in the extreme, meaning you found it difficult to care about them.
I felt the differant plot lines were too contrived and predictable, only once was I truly suprised by a movement in the story.
However the book is an OK read, the most impressive being the authors ability to paint an emotional picure of 1940 Spain.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
It is hard to know how to review this book without being critical of CJ Sansom, who I am sure is very nice and decent cove etc etc, but this book is a dull, plodding, turgid, overblown read, it is, as some have said, like Mills & Boon with a better cover. It is certainly not very good.
I started reading because I like many others, was drawn to the bleak and terrible tragedy of Spain's Civil War, the civil-war-within-the-war when Reds and anarchists fought each other in the streets of Barcelona, the Condor Legion, the terrible atrocities on both sides and the fate of those Republican prisoners, condemned to build Franco's mausoleum in the Guadarrama hills outside Madrid for decades after the war as slave labour.
Well, if that's what you want, forget it. This is sub-standard B-movie fare wrapped up as a brilliant film noir. But brilliant it isn't. It doesn't come anywhere close. The dialogue is unbelievable clunky and cliched. There are irritating mistakes in the history and the Spanish, and the plot lies becalmed for a couple of hundred pages while nothing much happens.
True, plot is not everything if the writing is beautiful, but Sansom's prose never lifts beyond the mundane and workaday. If you want to read well done and beautifully-written thrillers set in this period, then try Alan Furst's excellent series, including: Mission to Paris,The Polish Officer,Night Soldiers, or Dark Star.
Or indeed any of Philip Kerr's series with Bernie Gunther - Berlin Noir ('March Violets', 'The Pale Criminal' and 'A German Requiem') (Penguin Crime/Mystery) and all the others.
I longed for descriptions which would transport me to 1940s Madrid, or the bleak forbidding hills of Spain in winter. I never got them.
The British characters are all two-dimensional public school types. They seem to have a suburban dullness stamped through them, like Brighton rock. The Spanish are similarly cliched, and are largely secondary to the meanderings of the book.
When the plot finally reaches its climax, I was astounded at how the latter scenes were written, there were holes so big you could drive an entire panzer division through.
Sansom does not seem to be able to handle plot twists in this book, I do not know why, perhaps his heart was not really in it?
What twists there are involving a much-talked-of gold mine - where everybody from the British to the monarchist wing of the Francoist government is keen on - you can see coming from a continent away.
The coda at the end of the book is similarly dully and depressingly obvious.
I finished the book but bitterly regretted every minute I wasted on it.
On a positive note, (ahem) the afterword is good and is an interesting little primer on the war, changing British attitudes to the Franco regime between 1940 and 1945, and has a nice bibliography. Sadly none of this made it into the novel in any meaningful way.
I was going to buy Dominion, because I like dystopian visions of WW2, like Len Deighton's SS-GB and Robert Harris's Fatherland but now I am not so sure I will risk it.
I ended up laughing at it at various points because I simply did not care what happened to any of the characters - and was only able to keep going and finish the book by driving a succession of pins into my palms...
You have been warned.