‘Dominion’ by C. J. Sansom is an alternate history of what could have happened if Winston Churchill had failed to become Prime Minister in 1940 and Britain had signed a treaty with Germany ending the Second World War. In 1952, David Fitzgerald is a civil servant hiding his Jewish identity and secretly working for the British Resistance movement as a spy. His mission is to rescue his friend, Frank Muncaster, from a mental hospital before the Gestapo discover his terrible secret which could potentially change the balance of world power.
In many ways, an alternate history requires a deeper level of research than an ordinary historical novel. As well as addressing the facts, there is a great deal of speculation about how events may have plausibly developed in other circumstances. Consequently, it is a provocative story and judging by some reviews I’ve read on Goodreads, the blending of fact and fiction in ‘Dominion’ has proved highly controversial for some readers.
In a lengthy historical note at the end of the book, Sansom outlines his reasoning behind why he believes his version of events could have been likely under different circumstances whilst also being mindful of the fact that ‘Dominion’ is just one of many possible routes that could have been taken. Whether or not you find Sansom’s account entirely plausible or not, it is clear he has thought through pretty much every aspect of how everyday life could have been different. Overall, his thorough portrayal of an alternative Britain as a satellite of Nazi Germany is mostly very convincing, particularly the social aspects.
Clocking in at over 700 pages, ‘Dominion’ is very long, mostly due to the descriptions of how and why many aspects of life in Britain have changed since 1940. However, it still maintains a good pace for a thriller which picks up quickly after a fairly slow beginning. The characterisation wasn’t particularly subtle – the “good” characters are a bit too idealised and the “evil” characters a bit too demonised – but the focus of the novel is very much on the details of the setting. The London smog is a particularly effective and dramatic backdrop for the scenes where David, Frank, Ben and Natalia are on the run.
I read Sansom’s novel about the Spanish Civil War, ‘Winter in Madrid’, about four years ago and overall, I think it is a better book. ‘Dominion’ is certainly more ambitious but I wouldn’t say that fans of ‘Winter in Madrid’ or the Shardlake novels are guaranteed to love it. Anyone who enjoys thought-provoking alternate histories probably would though.