Review: Dominion, by C.J. Sansom

Posted: January 17, 2015 in Book Reviews, Politics, Science Fiction
Tags: , , , , ,

 

Dominion, by C.J. Sansom(Dominion, by C.J Samson. New York: Mulholland, 2014, 629 pp., $28.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

Move over Harry Turtledove, there’s a new contender for best alternate-history novelist.

C.J. Sansom’s massive Dominion looks at what might have happened (as Samson thinks would have happened, as he mentions in his “Historical Note”) if Churchill had not become British prime minister in May 1940, the appeasement faction of the Conservative Party had remained in power, and had made peace with Germany during or immediately following the fall of France. In broad terms, that would likely have meant (as it does in the novel) that Britain would have been dominated by Germany, its foreign policy allied with Germany’s, that the British government would have become increasingly authoritarian, to the point of stealing elections, spying on its citizens, and violently suppressing dissent, and that it would have engaged in increasingly odious anti-semitism.

Against this background, Samson’s protagonist, career civil servant David Fitzgerald, is recruited and begins spying for the resistance. Sansom does a fine job of showing how the need for secrecy and the constant fear of detection erode both Fitzgerald’s sense of well-being and his personal relationships. Things grow even tenser when an old college friend, Frank, a geologist, learns atomic secrets from his physicist drunken lout of a brother who’s working on neutral America’s atomic bomb project. The rest of the novel concerns the resistance’s attempts to get Frank out of the country and Special Branch’s efforts, directed by the Gestapo, to seize Frank and torture the information out of him.

Throughout, Dominion is almost flawless. Sansom really did his homework for this one, and it shows. His descriptions of 1940s and 1950s Britain seem note perfect, as do his descriptions of the workings of a resistance cell (modeled on the French resistance during WWII). The dialogue is crisp and natural sounding. (Normal speech is a sprawling mess. The trick with dialogue is to make it sound natural without its being natural.) And all of the characters, both male and female, are believable–often all too believable. They range from a brilliant German Gestapo agent, who commits barbaric acts without enjoying them, because he believes they’re necessary, to a working class Scottish communist who clings to a rosy picture of Stalin’s Russia, despite all evidence to the contrary, to an aging, rapidly declining but still heroic Winston Churchill.

The plot unfolds with an awful inevitability. If the old bit of writing advice, put your characters through absolute hell, is correct–and it usually is–Sansom succeeds brilliantly. You end up caring about his characters, and often end up saying to yourself, sometimes 50 or 100 pages before events unfold, “Please don’t let that happen!”

I only found three weak points in the entire book. One is minor: while I was reading the very short portion on radio surveillance, I found myself going, “No, that’s not right. This guy is keeping this short and general to gloss over his ignorance of the subject. Even his generalizations are off.” But most readers would never notice this. (Years and years ago, I worked as a “broadcast engineer”–that is, a technician–at radio and TV stations; broadcast engineers are only a bit more engineerlike than workers doing another job I held ages ago: “sanitation engineer.”) It turned out that I was right about this. In his notes following the conclusion of the text, Sansom says that he’s almost entirely ignorant about radio, and thanks an expert for advice on the subject. Evidently, it was bad advice.

The second problem is more serious. While searching Frank’s house prior to its being searched by Special Branch and the Gestapo, David and two other members of his resistance cell pull a boner that no reasonably security conscious person would likely pull, let alone three security conscious people. That boner turns out to be crucial, though I doubt that it would bother other readers as much as it bothered me.

Finally, and most crucially, the turning point of the novel–Frank’s brief conversation with his drunken brother–seems dubious. It’s hard to buy that a low- or mid-ranking physicist could give crucial information to a nonphysicist in a drunken rant only lasting a minute or two. But grant this premise, and everything else falls into place.  Beautifully.

Dominion is tense and gripping from first page to last. It could well be the best alternate-history novel I’ve ever read.

Highly recommended.

* * *

Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover

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Comments
  1. sjhigbee says:

    It’s always fascinating to read a review of a book I’ve really enjoyed – and I really appreciated your well written, intelligent article. The gloss on the radio details completely passed me by as I simply didn’t know enough – while the bit I did know more about – the political and social history of the time, I think he has pitch perfect. Regarding the blooper over the security detail – again I missed it… And I think the final turning point does demand a certain suspension of belief, but I was prepared to give Sansom a free pass over that one, as the rest of it hung together so very well and was so well written:)

    Have you read his Matthew Shardlake Tudor mystery series? Again, beautifully written and well researched – and while not exactly a barrel of laughs, certainly a lot less bleak!

    Like

    • Thank you. I’m glad you liked the review.

      You’re right about Sansom’s portraying the political situation in ’40s Britain perfectly. From what I know of it (admittedly, not much), he also got the social setting right, and also the physical descriptions–notably the 1952 killer smog in London (yeesh!). It was all too easy to sink into the bleak world Sansom describes.

      The major security error was David (and, as I recall, both Geoff and Natalia) seeing the photo with Frank, David, and Geoff in it in Frank’s flat, David’s handling it, and leaving it for the police to find. That sort of incompetence is hard to buy, especially on the part of not one but three supposedly security-conscious characters.

      I didn’t have a problem with the final turning point, which seemed plausible to me.

      I haven’t read any of Sansom’s mysteries. I rarely read any fiction except science fiction. To paraphrase an old Robert Cray song, so many sci-fi novels, so little time.

      Thanks again for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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