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Customer Review

322 of 359 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slightly Disappointing, 30 Oct. 2012
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This review is from: Dominion (Kindle Edition)
I am a great admirer of Sansom's Shardlake novels. He has a thorough understanding of Tudor England and his stories set in that era are wonderful to read. This novel is a considerable change for him.

The story, what he calls an "alternate history", is set in 1952 (the year of his birth and - as it happens - mine). Britain had negotiated a peace treaty with Hitler in 1940. The war in the west ended then, though it lumbered on in the east. By 1952 Russia and Germany are still at war. But Britain is run by a pro-treaty government which has outlawed the opposition. Germany is Britain's closest ally. The government has become more and more authoritarian. At the time the story is set, all British Jews are being rounded up with the aim of sending them to eastern Europe to be gassed. Churchill, the leader of the resistance, is a wanted man, running from large country house to large country house to escape the Special Branch. The British police willingly give their assistance to the SS. British subjects are routinely taken to the basement of the German embassy to be tortured.

Against that background we meet the story's main characters. Frank Muncaster is a slightly unhinged geologist whose brother, a scientist working in America on secret weapons, blurts out something to Frank about the work he is doing in America. Frank is horrified. He pushes his brother through a window and, as a result, is dragged off to a lunatic asylum. David Fitzgerald is Frank's only real friend from university days. He is a civil servant. He has worked for the resistance for a couple of years, copying secret documents. When his relationship with Frank is discovered the resistance enlists his help in getting Frank out of the asylum before the Germans get hold of him. The adventure is on its way. I will not ruin the story by saying what then happens.

The story itself is gripping enough (although it is not easy to accept the theory that Frank's brother was really able to say anything of such gigantic use to the Germans in the few minutes which preceded the assault). But we can happily overlook that weakness as we tensely turn the many hundreds of pages to find out what happens next. I regret the lack of humour in the book, but that now seems to be the mark of the modern thriller and I certainly don't want to give the impression that this is not a gripping read.

What I did, I confess, find rather disagreeable was Sansom's decision to portray certain real politicians as being positively evil. I can see that he doesn't like newspaper magnates and I suppose I can just about forgive him for casting Beaverbrook as his pro-treaty Prime Minister (though it hardly rings true to anyone who knows about Beaverbrook's work as a minister throughout the war - particularly his conviction that the allies had to do all they could to assist Russia). But choosing to make Enoch Powell a pro-treaty cabinet minister can't really be forgiven. Sansom reveals, in a biographical note at the end of the book, that he is on the left in politics. but that does not excuse ignorance. I wonder what Tony Benn, a great friend of Powell's, would make of Sansom's decision to portray Powell as an ally of Nazis.

Powell was Professor of Greek at Sydney University when war was declared. He immediately resigned and returned to England to enlist in the army as a private. He finished the war as a brigadier (one of the youngest ever and one of only two people to rise from private to brigadier during the war). In the 1945 election, despite being a natural Tory, he voted Labour. He did so because he still could not forgive the Conservatives for Munich. Famously, when asked what he most regretted in his life, he said that he wished he had been killed in the war. How on earth Sansom could imagine such a man as a Nazi sympathiser is quite beyond me. True, and this seems to be Sansom's point, Powell was an enormous admirer of the Indian Empire. It was the threat to that empire which brought him into politics after the war, though by the time he had become an MP in 1950 that battle had been lost and he became convinced that there was no longer any place for British imperialism. No, making Powell a Nazi villain, presumably just because he is dead and can't sue, was a major fault in this novel. And there are other dead politicians treated in the same way (both Labour and Conservative - not to mention the entire Scottish Nationalist Party). I won't make this lengthy review even longer by going through them all as well. All I will say is this part of the novel is both weak and disagreeable.

I don't want to put people off reading this rather good and well-written yarn, but a health warning is needed for anyone who has any knowledge of the 1939 to 1953 period of British history.

Charles
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Comments

Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 38 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 31 Oct 2012 14:45:41 GMT
Mickster1000 says:
There was no real need for Mr. Sansom to reveal his political leanings in the notes of this book. He politics are there for all to see. Which was tiresome and detracted from the story.
At times, the book read like a personal polemic. He clearly does not like to SNP and, it appears, equates all and any nationalist sentiment with fascism. He is certainly entitled to his opinions. However, I wish he had stuck to weaving a good story (something, I believe, he is very good at) rather than using a novel, none to subtley, for propaganda purposes.
I don't suppose that you can be revisionist with an alternate history. However, as this reviewer quite rightly states the author's portrayal of Beavorbrook and Powell was evidently wrong and in many ways rather cruel. However, the way they were portrayed in this book serves the author's agenda well and allows him to decry imperialism and link it to facism. Also, I fell that the alternate history Beavorbrook has been burdened with the author's feelings toward a certain American/Australian newspaper owner commonly reviled and detested by the so called liberal left.
Also, on a completely different note. I'm always reminded of Enid Blyton whenever this author writes dialogue for the working classes in this book and his other political novel "Winter in Madrid". Does anyone else feel this way or is it only me?

In reply to an earlier post on 31 Oct 2012 19:45:25 GMT
C. E. Utley says:
You are right to point out that Sansom's political views are evident from the novel itself and didn't need to be spelled out in the notes. I wonder whether the serious illness to which he refers in those notes provides the explanation for his diatribes. It could be that he thought this was his last chance to preach to us. Let us hope he is now recovered and can return to writing his excellent Shardlake stories.

Charles

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Nov 2012 09:25:01 GMT
Steven says:
I hadn't realised he'd been unwell. the audio book version that I have yet to listen to, while unabridged, doesn't seem to include the author's note.

thank you very much for a great review-- you haven't put me off reading, but I'll bare your comments re real historical characters in mind.

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Nov 2012 19:45:18 GMT
Last edited by the author on 6 Nov 2012 19:46:21 GMT
C. E. Utley says:
I am glad I haven't put you off reading this book. It is definitely a good read, though I do think it has some faults. Perhaps I shouldn't have dwelt so much on the injustice done to Enoch Powell, though I think it is difficult to defend. In particular, I think it was rather beastly of Sansom to lay into Powell while his widow is still alive.

I must try to look into the future, to a time when readers of this book will not include people who knew the politicians Sansom has decided to brand as Nazis. I fear it will, even then, not be thought of as a great read. Why, I ask myself, would that be? The answer is that the book is totally devoid of humour. There is no light relief at any stage. Yes, one is desperate to know what happens in the end, but one has to go through endless gloom before one gets there.

Please read it, and don't be put off by me. But don't think you are reading a story which will pass the test of time.

Charles

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Nov 2012 13:24:48 GMT
Pegasus says:
I agree I hope he will return to the excellent Shardlake stories. Pegasus

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Nov 2012 20:17:25 GMT
C. E. Utley says:
Thank you, Pegasus.

Charles

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Nov 2012 15:53:40 GMT
Last edited by the author on 13 Nov 2012 15:59:53 GMT
I'm just a few pages off finishing the book so probably shouldn't look at reviews in case I spoil the ending, however so far I agree totally with what you've said. I'm a scientist (immunologist) and ex-TA so not a nuclear physicist however I CAN tell you (more or less) how to make a Uranium bomb of the type used on Hiroshima. The German nuclear physicists (the few none Jewish ones left in Germany) made a serious error calculating the critical mass of Uranium needed. They were working on a bomb needing tons of Uranium (too heavy to drop). In actual fact the critical mass of U-235 is in the 20kg region (depending on exact purity). Knowing this is a massive help to making a bomb. In the real world because the amount of Uranium they thought they needed was so ridiculously large the German A-bomb programme never got serious funding. '27 kilos at 99.2% purity' could be all Muncaster would need to hear.

Regarding politics 'Left' and 'Right' wing is meaningless. Stalin is 'left' , Hitler 'right' yet both regimes were remarkably similar. Hitler had many policies which were socialist (especially employment - getting the unemployed building autobahns) & was anti-capitalist (to an extent at least... Krupps and Porsche did nicely under him). A British 'left wing' politician favouring him is probably more likely than a British 'right' winger.

I'm in my mid-30s so frankly don't know enough about Powell to comment. His 'rivers of blood' speach gets latched onto by some of the nastier elements in our society. Equally elsewhere in Europe many people collaborated for different reasons. Plenty from neutral nations joined the SS as 'anti-communists' (Churchill himself was hardly a fan of Stalin either!) who knows who would have done what if WW2 had panned out as described? Its worth pointing out that JFK was one of the US's most liberal presidents but his father was very pro-nazi (both for Irish american anti English & US anti communist beliefs)

P.S SOME Scots Nats did have sympathies with Hitler. This guardian article is pretty mild
http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2001/jun/03/theobserver.uknews1
German military intelligence believed it was funding militant Welsh Nationalists (it wasn't - MI5 were decieving them) but the IRA DID help the nazis (fairly incompetently) so Samson has some basis for his SNP claims. Its worth pointing out that even in 1952 they didn't get independence which is equally likely. Nationalist elements elsewhere in Europe who favoured Hitler rarely profited from it either.

Posted on 16 Nov 2012 10:50:30 GMT
I finished it last night. Perhaps at odds with most of you I found the notes at the back the best bit of the book. Sansom lays out his justification for why he decided on each scenario in his book (no German invasion, George VI remaining King rather than the oft-used Edward VIII getting the throne back etc). He also stresses its 'AN alternative history' not 'THE Alternative' . Nor would I describe Powell as 'a nazi villiain' . He's barely in the book and only appears in person at the very end where he is extremely unhappy about India getting independence and extremely reluctant to give up power. I looked up Powell's paper suggesting remilitarisation of India (quoted by Sansom) at a quick glance see where the author is coming from. Its worth pointing out that in the scenario described Powell, Beaverbrook etc have nothing to do with the initial peace treaty with Germany (thats laid at Halifax's door) and accepting that Britain HAS made a treaty with Germany and has been politically and militarily neutralised I'd have no problem with pro-Empire politicians making what they see as the best of a bad job. There's no hint in the book that either man worked against Britain before the treaty.

As a Scot living in England (who therefore is unable to vote in 2014) I see nothing good for me in Scottish independence.

In reply to an earlier post on 16 Nov 2012 22:17:19 GMT
Last edited by the author on 16 Nov 2012 22:18:25 GMT
C. E. Utley says:
I accept some of your points. But, in relation to Powell, what you overlook is that he is portrayed as being a member of a cabinet which is happily embarking on the killing of Jews, assisting in the torture of British subjects and trying to track down Churchill in order to murder him. His widow and daughters are still alive. I am not persuaded that it is remotely civilised of Sansom to depict him as he does.

Quite agree about Scottish independence (you will no doubt be horrified to learn that Powell was an opponent of Scottish independence).

Charles

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Nov 2012 09:00:13 GMT
I have not yet started this book, but still.
The idea of Churchill, aged 78 dashing around organising a resistance movement is faintly ludicrous.
We can never know how people would have reacted to an imaginary situation.
Beaverbrook, Powell and Churchill were all Right Wing, but were all patriots, none was remotely a Nazi.
Any more than Atlee and Bevin were remotely Stalinist.
I also cannot see how the war on the Eastern front could have gone on for eleven years.
One side or other would have buckled under the horrendous casualty rates, I think.
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