Monday 21 January 2013

Dominion by C. J. Sansom (Mantle/Pan Macmillan, 2012): Signed Ltd Edition; Review

Our next signed book was actually a Christmas present from the lovely Rachel, who managed to arrange its delivery ahead of the day itself even though, in my usual indecisive manner, I'd only told her what I wanted a week beforehand:

It's a British first edition/first impression of C. J. Sansom's Dominion, published in hardback by Mantle/Pan Macmillan at the tail end of 2012. Or rather, to be more accurate, it's the limited, signed edition:

I started seeing reviews of the book at the beginning of December and was immediately intrigued; I've long been fascinated by alternate history stories, especially those which posit what would have happened if the Nazis had won the Second World War – see Len Deighton's SS-GB, Robert Harris's Fatherland (which Sansom acknowledges a debt to in a Bibliographical Note at the back of Dominion), and even Sarban's The Sound of His Horn. Dominion is set in Britain in 1952, twelve years after, in Sansom's timeline, this country signed a Peace Treaty – surrendered, to all intents and purposes – with Hitler's Germany. Unsurprisingly, it's a grim place: at the behest of the Nazis the indigenous Jewish population is finally being rounded up, and the prime minister, Lord Halifax, heads a coalition government that's little more than a puppet administration. Winston Churchill, now in his late-seventies, commands the Resistance, for whom civil servant David Fitzgerald is spying when he's tasked with a mission to assist an old friend, Frank Muncaster, who's been imprisoned in a mental hospital, and who holds a terrifying secret that the Germans would be only too pleased to obtain.

It's a deliberately paced affair; not having read any of Sansom's historical novels (he's perhaps best known for the sixteenth century-set Shardlake series) I don't know if the measured pace of Dominion is a symptom of the 1950s setting or simply the manner in which he writes, but either way, although it's a compelling read, and evidently heavily researched, I found it a tad starchy in places. That said, there's some ingenious use of London locations – Senate House as SS HQ, for example – and some decent character work; not so much David, who's a bit bland, but certainly poor, troubled Frank with his nervous "monkey grin", and, on the opposite team, the idealogically determined but war-weary Sturmbannführer Gunther Hoth (echoes there of Standartenführer Oskar Huth from SS-GB). And it's an admirable endeavour overall; there've been grumblings in the right-wing press over the treatment of some of the real historical figures, notably Enoch Powell, but Sansom's suppositions about which politicians would have kowtowed to Hitler struck me – with my admittedly meagre knowledge of history – as being plausible.

Sansom's aim in writing the novel, however, wasn't to stir up controversy over which public figures might, under different circumstances, have been collaborators. As he reveals in the Historical Note at the back of the book, he had a particular target in mind: nationalism – which he identifies as being on the rise again in Europe – and especially the Scottish National Party, to whom he delivers a well-aimed kick to the cobblers. He writes: 

If this book can persuade even one person of the dangers of nationalist politics in Scotland as in the rest of Europe, and to vote 'no' in the referendum on Scottish independence, it will have made the whole labour worthwhile. The recent record of other parties in Scotland has not been good; that is never a reason to vote for something worse, and to do so irrevocably; and a party which is often referred to by its members, as the SNP is, as the 'National Movement' should send a chill down the spine of anyone who remembers what those words have so often meant in Europe.

It's an impassioned polemic, penned with an urgency that's occasionally lacking in the preceding novel, and almost worth the price of admission by itself.


  1. Just for bibliographical accuracy - there are two issues of the SIGNED copies. There is the Mantle produced item that you describe here - 1500 copies that the author signed (the signature sheet sent to his home for him to do the job) - and the 60 copies that the author signed direct to the title page for me. These latter copies were kindly signed by the author at his home the day before he was due to have his first bout of chemotherapy (he explains the illness in the epilogue to the book).

  2. Thanks for the bibliographical addition, Ralph – much appreciated!

  3. Hmm. Seems to me that he missed the irony of Hitler himself being rather notoriously (and militarily) opposed to the rights of small nations to seek their own destinies. Not taking a stance on Scottish independence (it's not my place), but a party calling itself "National" does not make it fascist, and we owed rather a lot in WWII to the determination of various 'nationalist' groups chafing under Nazi rule, did we not? Nationalism, like most enduring forces in history, is as good or evil as the people employing it. Hitler was as much of an internationalist as a nationalist, after all--he was trying to unify Europe--under an iron boot, to be sure.

    It's so easy, when you're the big nation that eats up the little ones, to say "Oh we must put these petty divisions aside". I take it he'd have had no problems with Britain ceding sovereignty to the European Union?

    I think we can all agree it's a good thing the Nazis lost, but once we get past that, we tend to get bogged down in the typical complexities of life and politics and conflicting agendas. Anyway, Scotland remains a part of the UK, and Puerto Rico a part of the United States (after a fashion) And Northern Ireland remains a problem, doesn't it?

    Here (though we also do "Axis won WWII" stories), the equivalent genre would probably be the "What if the South won the Civil War" scenario. And we are STILL fighting that one, as you might have heard. And you might also have heard that you guys came within a hairsbreadth of recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation--even though most Britons opposed slavery by that point.

    Thinkin' about Lincoln today. Was he a nationalist? He put the survival of his nation above everything (including the end of slavery), but he was opposing the right of another nation to come into being, and that aspiring nation was opposing the right of a section of its people to be CONSIDERED people, as opposed to property.

    One thing about WWII--one side was so clearly in the wrong, it kind of spoiled us. We keep looking for all the right (or nearly all) to be clearly on one side. And that's about the only time it ever happened. Which is not to say it could never happen again.

    You understand, I haven't read the book, so I can't help but veer off into stuff I actually know something about. Studied history at the graduate level. For all the good it did me. ;)

  4. The objection about Powell is that his portrayal in this novel is not plausible at all, which seems to be a perfectly legitimate literary and historical point.

  5. Well, it's all academic now (literally), but having scanned the Wikipedia article on Enoch Powell's long and somewhat tumultuous career, and the wealth of often conflicting positions he took, all I can say is that anyone who can say with certainty what he would have said or done in this or any other hypothetical situation is a more confident alternate-historical prognosticator than myself. ;)

  6. Hmm--reading a bit further, I am ready to offer an opinion on the Enoch Powell issue.

    I think that if he'd believed Hitler's offer to let the British Empire alone, he might well have supported making a separate peace with Nazi Germany. He might have regretted some of the consequences of that, but just as Pope Pius believed that the survival of his institution was worth any accommodation, Powell would have put the Empire above all at that stage of his life.

    But he wouldn't have believed Hitler. He would have shared Churchill's (correct) perception that Hitler was a sociopath, inherently untrustworthy, and he'd have remembered what happened after Stalin made a separate peace with Hitler. Hitler lied, frequently. He had no intention of letting any rival source of authority exist in Europe, or near Europe.

    Powell was not what you'd call a compromising fellow (this was both a good and a bad thing). He would have assumed that Germany had every intention of taking over Britain's Empire, as it had been aspiring to do when Hitler was just a shivering soldier in the trenches of WWI. Therefore, his one motivation for agreeing to such an arrangement would be invalid, and he'd have said there was no choice but to fight on--win or perish.

    I don't have much sympathy for Powell's political views, but I do think he was a man of integrity, and he was tough-minded enough to know a bad deal when it was being offered.

    Sorry, my inner pedant piping up again. ;)

  7. I'm about a third of the way through this - it's pretty good so far. Great addition to the 'what if' school of thrillers.

  8. Indeed it is, Rob – not quite up there with SS-GB, but still damn fine.