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on 30 October 2012
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.

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on 3 February 2013
This is a "what might have been" novel - what might have happened had Churchill not gained power at a critical moment and the government continued a policy of appeasement. It is set in 1952, 12 years after a treaty is made with Germany. In the intervening years Britain has become an authoritarian state which increasingly collaborates with the German Nazi government. There has also been a growing British Resistance under Churchill. The main characters are highlighted against this backdrop as they become part of a web to prevent critical information from falling into the hands of the Germans.

This is not a Shardlake novel, don't start reading it thinking it is going to be an exquisitely crafted Tudor murder mystery. This is an equally well crafted but thought provoking book which requires the reader to imagine an alternative history for Britain and it is Sansom's alternative history, not the reader's. From the many divided reviews about this book one can see that Sansom's ideas about how history might have panned out are not to everybody's taste. Sansom has placed real historical figures into his revised landscape and readers are going to have widely differing opinions as to whether these characters should occupy these places and propound the ideologies that are given to them in this alternate history.

But if you can abandon yourself to Sansom's alternate history you can find a provocative read that is steeped in the gloom and desperation of his revised landscape just like the Great Smog of 1952 which looms evocatively in the plot. The characters are flawed and real, fanatics and pacifists, they grow and shrink as they are buffeted by the events. It makes for a real and desperate world which you leave at the end of the book with a sigh of relief that it is only what might have been and not what did happen.
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on 5 January 2013
This was a bit of a let down. Alternative historical perspective is reasonably good. I think Beaverbrook did have delusions of grandeur sufficient to want to be PM. I am not quite sure Churchill would have been much value as an underground resistance leader but not completely implausible.

However what lets the book down are the crass characterisation and the weak central concept of an important secret which is neither important enough to set off the manhunt or really very secret. As an example of the repetitive characterisation Frank is continuously introduced by reference to his rictus grin. It's the Enid Blyton approach to writing about people.

Also could have done with some more judicious editing probably 30 or 40 pages too long. The Kindle edition doesn't know whether to spell Beaverbrook as Beaver brook or even Beaver-brook.
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on 4 January 2013
Love his Shardlake novels but this really isn't anywhere near the same standard.

It has two major weaknesses: first, it has a political agenda that gets in the way of the story and also results in it being overlong; second, the story hangs by a thread that really isn't strong enough to take the weight of the narrative; the 'secret' that the older Muncaster passes on to his brother and that drives the subsequent action is so slight that, when revealed, it left me with an acute sense of being let down.

Not a disaster but a disappointment - and when your form is as strong as Sansom's, that simply makes one all the more aware of the difference.
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VINE VOICEon 26 May 2013
This novel, from the pen of the creator of the Tudor sleuth Matthew Shardlake, is very different from that series, being an alternative historical fiction novel set in an England of 1952 where the Nazis won the war. This alternate history scenario has been done to death in numerous books and is by far the most frequent one in this genre, though it is treated much more deeply and analytically here than in many other cases. The divergent point here is that, on Chamberlain's resignation after the Norway debate in May 1940, Lord Halifax succeeds him as Prime Minister, instead of Churchill. Britain makes peace with Germany after the retreat from Dunkirk and so the war ends within a few months. Fast forward to 1952 and Lord Beaverbrook has succeeded Lloyd George as Prime Minister, and the Opposition to the Government, led by Churchill and with the participation of the bulk of the Labour Party, has had to become an underground resistance movement after being banned following what is implied as having been a fixed general election in 1950.

The heroes of the story are an unlikely set of people: David, a middle ranking civil servant who has become disillusioned with government policy and who is secretly Jewish (even his wife Sarah is unaware); Frank, a reclusive scientist committed to a mental hospital; Ben, his attendant at the hospital and a militant Glaswegian communist; and Natalia, an enigmatic Slovak émigrée. The plot revolves around some "secret" military knowledge of which Frank has inadvertently been made aware and which is sought by the Germans among others. The plot is mostly gripping and contains numerous twists and turns as our heroes attempt to flee Britain. I thought it was a little overlong, but definitely packed with interesting incidents reflecting the nature of what such an alternate Britain might have been like, and how it might have affected the lives and attitudes of its inhabitants. There are some shocking incidents and scenes along the way and some tragic and unexpected deaths. The German characters and their British collaborators are also well drawn and believable. All in all, a great read. The author finishes with a historical note in which he sets out how he thinks his scenario could have arisen, and the dangers of nationalism and blaming of the "other" for all that is wrong in society that is frequently nationalism's concomitant. 4.5/5
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on 26 November 2012
I'm a big fan of Sansom and loved his Shadlake books to the extent that I've read them all a couple of times, so I was really looking forward to this book, something completely different from an excellent author. Unfortunately, I've given up at just under half way, because it's almost a chore to have to pick it up and read it. It's extremely slow, the characters are unconvincing and 2 dimensional and as much as it pains me to say it, it's boring. I've read SS-GB and it's a far better book. In my opinion anybody new to Sansom won't be wanting to try his other books. Bring back Shadlake and quickly.
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on 7 January 2013
So what would have happened if Britain had surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk?

'Dominion' gives the impression that the future of democracy depends upon an untrained and naive resistance who manage to make an amateur fist of the simplest jobs (misplaced secret files), are oblivious to the Nazi's plans for Britain ('we have no one in the Home Office') are horified by Nazi interrogation methods ('you're evil' - you don't say). They run around the country asking the same questions and then, when they are rumbled and their most precious cargo about to be captured, throw caution to the winds, strip off and almost get caught on the job.

'Dominion' turns a wonderful idea into a disappointing catalogue of missed opportunities. If the central character must be a secret Jew, couldn't the Gestapo blood hound, with a nose for this sort of thing, sniff him out? If his politics have put his marriage at risk, couldn't the plucky wife show her true mettle? Why else do we have her view point? Or, if the unexpected love interest was so alluring as to put the success of the mission at risk, wouldn't he have got her out at all cost and left the moany wife behind with the travelling sales man? Where are the double agents? The plot twists that unravel as the reader pieces together the lethal secret that the deranged scientist believes to be worth dying for?

Instead of capturing our imaginations and provoking us to think about how history could have been different, we have to plod through a PhD thesis masquerading as a piece of fiction. It does so with all the heavy handed, clunky tedium of Sansom's cardboard cut out resistance cell.

Don't believe the blurb. If you want a 'gripping spy thriller' read Le Carre. If you want 'a haunting re-imagining' read Robert Harris's 'Fatherland'. And if you want to know about 1952 - read a history book.
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on 17 February 2015
I was really surprised how poor this book is. It reads like a clunky first attempt at a novel with too much over-expositionary dialogue, repetitions of character traits, over-use of adverbs and re-descriptions of events already told. Certainly it was an example of embarrassingly bad writing. The actual plot is so weak (in some places the details are switched around, i.e. order of visits made, cf p250 with p302) and I would recheck what I’d read as the sequence of events did not stand up. The characterisation was superficial. I wasn’t convinced by any characters, each of whom almost deliberately lacked depth.

One characterisation is laughable. Whilst you can despise his politics, Enoch Powell had credentials that were impeccably anti-fascist. He was an opponent of appeasement and a man who had returned to England from a comfortable academic position in Australia - specifically to fight against the Nazis. Sansom's idea of him collaborating with Oswald Mosley is patently absurd.

In summary, whilst there are plenty of moments when the 1952 setting is made believable - the details of austerity Britain are well enough rendered – it is the writing that lets the book down. Historical backfill is force-fed into dialogue throughout and authorial interventions pop into descriptions. Excessive adverbiage and tiresome teenage-stylistic dialogue slashes hard at the throat of the book and the story is told at a plodding, dull pace. I just didn't enjoy it much and found I had to force myself to skim-read/plough on to the bitter end.

One more gripe: the final four pages are (bizarrely) taken up with a diatribe against the Scottish National Party and to dismiss even the possibility that an independent future for Scotland could be anything other than a deeply fascistic and retrograde step! This followed various snide 'anti-SNP' remarks in the body of the novel that don’t pass muster and are certainly irrelevant to the story he wanted to tell.
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on 27 December 2014
C. J. Sansom promises much and delivers little in 'Dominion,' a bloated alternate history thriller. He combines the usual failings of such genre fair - shaky characterisation, limited emotional or thematic depth and an improbable plot - with his characteristically turgid prose, and yet fails to generate much in the way of narrative drive or excitement to hold the reader's attention. The result is a dreary, unrewarding read.

Set predominantly in London in the 1950's, in a world where Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940, the USA never entered the war and the Axis powers are triumphant; Dominion's premise is well-worn but intriguing. Indeed, for the first hundred pages or so certain details of the alt-history feel fresh and interesting; the slow death of the British Empire and the 'city on the hill' malaise of an isolationist USA in particular are nice conceits. Sansom, however, introduces us to his imagined world with a crushing lack of subtlety that comes to define the novel; detailing in the prologue how Churchill was denied the premiership, and so Britain came to surrender to Nazi Germany.

The plot is straightforward to the point of frustration, and can be summarised in a single sentence. (MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD) David, a civil servant and reluctant member of the British Resistance movement, gathers a motley crew of Resistance members to exfiltrate a scientist with knowledge of the American government's nuclear weapons programme. That's it. Readers hoping for a twist or reversal of some sort will - eventually - finish the novel disappointed. (SPOILERS END).

How, you might ask, does Sansom occupy 600 pages with the plot of 70 minute straight-to-TV thriller? He achieves this impressive feat by padding every aspect of the novel to the point of bursting. Sansom indulges in rambling descriptions of every ancillary character and location, the meals eaten, the clothes worn and the weather, amongst other fascinating asides. His characters natter constantly to one another, often about nothing much, sometimes recapping the plot for those who lapsed into a coma for a couple of hundred pages, and - most irritatingly - leaning on the fourth wall with 'I wonder how things would be different if Britain hadn't surrendered'-type speculation. By bogging down in every incidental detail; the plot slows to a crawl. Yet the action, when it comes, is dreadfully-written and feels strangely rushed. The climactic showdown is reminiscent of a cheap 1960's police serial; its action amounting to a few men wrestling each other clumsily until the bad guys fall down dead.

Dominion, in short, fails utterly to deliver on its promise. Sansom's extensive research (detailed in the afterword) yields a few fresh alt-history conceits, and a together with a couple of poignant setpieces salvage the novel from complete disaster. Make no mistake, however, Dominion is best avoided. Readers interested in the setting would do better to read Robert Harris's still-superb Fatherland. Those still looking for alt-history thrills may enjoy Stephen Baxter's Proxima Duology; which shares this novels weak dialogue and characterisation, but is at least original, and sparkles with intelligence.
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on 6 November 2012
It isn't easy writing about an alternative reality. Somehow the author has to explain the world he or she has created without resorting to pages of tedious exposition which sits apart from the flow of the narrative and inevitably slows it down. Good writers manage to create the image of a different reality almost without the reader noticing; bad writers constantly remind the reader that he or she is being instructed.

Sansom can conjure up a compelling sense of space and time - he does it in the Shardlake novels. But he completely fails to do so here. The first third of Dominion slowly and laboriously sets the scene. The remaining two thirds are little more than an extended chase scene - though at least with pace and energy lacking in the early part of the book.

The long historical note at the end of the book shows very clearly that Sansom cares passionately about the issues underpinning Dominion. It's a great shame that that passion is nowhere apparent in the body of the novel.
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