The year is 1952 and a fog hangs heavy, dense and toxic over Britain. In C.J. Sansom’s alternate history, Beaverbrook not Churchill became Prime Minister. Instead, Churchill is the hunted leader of the Resistance. The government is a union of Nazi sympathisers, controlling the new and unhappy Queen, welcoming the Gestapo onto the island’s shores where they make their own dark plans in the fortress that was once the University of London’s Senate House. The Second World War never happened. Instead there was a brief conflict in 1939-1940 known either as the Dunkirk Campaign or the Jews’ War. The veterans of the Great War are respected and honoured by the German and British people who are determined that no such war will occur again between the two nations – just as long as Hitler and his SS are free to continue their ‘work’ on the continent. But, as the novel begins, 12 years after the signing of the peace treaty, there are the stirrings of a more active involvement by the Nazis in British domestic and imperial affairs, especially on racial matters.
Dominion follows the story of David Fitzgerald, a young civil servant who also spies for the Resistance. When his old school friend Frank Muncaster rises to the top of the Nazi’s Most Wanted list, thanks to secrets confided in him by his brother settled in America, Fitzgerald is the natural choice to rescue Muncaster, a deeply troubled scientist who cowers in a mental hospital, and keep whatever Muncaster hides safe from the Nazis. At the same time, though, the Germans send over from Berlin one of their top officers, the fiercely intelligent and ruthless Gunther Hoth, to seek Muncaster in person.
On one level, Dominion is an adventure story, with the air of a cold war spy thriller about it, although the circumstances are far more deadly. The cat and mouse chase keeps up a pace throughout the novel. There are other threads here, though. Big themes are explored – love, friendship and courage. The relationships between brothers, between man and wife, between lovers, between colleagues, between a government and its subjects distract the characters and readers alike as each questions the limits to which one would go to do the right thing. Not just for one’s fellow countrymen, including Jews and the mentally ill or physically disabled, but also for one’s wife or husband. On the other hand, though, how far would others go to further a career? Even Hoth has his thought processes revealed. And all is concealed and obscured by this horrendous fog.
Sansom is best known, of course, for his famous Tudor investigator Shardlake, although he has explored more recent history before in Winter of Madrid. One can see the similarities between the Tudor and alternate history presented in Dominion. In the post-Dissolution years, England was most probably a frightened and confused place, with centuries of belief smashed around its people. I can see why a fascist Britain would interest Sansom.
Anyone who’s read the Shardlake novels, especially, in my opinion, the first two, knows how well Sansom writes. He achieves an air of authority while still exploring the weaknesses (and strengths) of men and women living in troubled times. Sansom achieves something of the same in Dominion. Arguably, though, this air of authority does have its disadvantages here. In the first couple of hundred pages in particular there is a lot of Info Dumping, so much so that I was irritated on occasion. Admittedly, I did have flu at the time and this may have been a contributing factor. But this and some of the dubious political world building is offset by the brilliance of Dominion‘s atmosphere. Looking back on it, I remember the the fog, the anger, the chill and the rumours. Knowing as we do what went on in Nazi Germany – some of which the protagonists can only suspect – adds a real sense of urgency to the story.
There is a coldness in Dominion, which isn’t surprising considering some of the people in it and its mood of secrets, but I must mention Frank Muncaster, a character I warmed to deeply.
I won’t be the first to mention it but comparisons with Robert Harris’ alternate history Fatherland are inevitable and should there be a contest between the two I’m not sure that Dominion would be the victor. Intriguingly, though, Sansom does not take the easy course here with his new history – George VI stays on the throne and there is no German invasion. This adds a much more interesting dimension to the motives and positions of the key characters.
All in all, Dominion is a very good alternate history of an extremely unpleasant Britain. A sinister and oppressive atmosphere hangs over this tale of domination and resistance and it’s that you’ll remember it for.