Review: “Dominon” By C. J. Sansom (Novel)

Well, I’ve been meaning to read C. J. Sansom’s 2012 alternate history novel “Dominion” for a few weeks – ever since a relative found a copy of it in a charity shop and thought that I might be interested in it, given my enthusiasm for Sansom’s excellent “Shardlake” series.

However, I should probably point out that “Dominion” isn’t a Shardlake novel (it’s set in the 20th century, rather than the 16th century) – but I was curious to see how Sansom would handle other genres of fiction.

So, let’s take a look at “Dominon”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2012 Mantle (UK) hardback edition of “Dominion” that I read.

The novel takes place in an alternate timeline where, in 1940, Winston Churchill is made Minister Of Defence instead of Prime Minister. Without Churchill’s determined leadership, the second world war ends up just being a short and unsuccessful campaign in France and Norway – which ends with Britain surrendering and signing a peace treaty with Germany.

As part of the treaty, the German military occupies the Isle of Wight and a far-right puppet government (a historical rogues’ gallery consisting of Lord Beaverbrook, Oswald Mosley, Enoch Powell etc..) takes office in Britain. Britain is allowed to retain control of it’s empire and, for a while, to keep up the pretence of democracy. However, opposition to the puppet government is slowly crushed and the German embassy in London gains a lot of political influence.

Most of the events of the story take place in London twelve years later (in 1952) and they involve a civil servant called David, who helps the resistance by copying government documents for them. One of David’s old university friends (called Frank) ends up in an asylum after having a nervous breakdown following a fight with his brother – a scientist who has been working in America.

The resistance realise that Frank might have overheard secret information and begin a plan to smuggle him out of the country. Of course, it also doesn’t take the staff of the German embassy long to realise this too. But, who will get to Frank first…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it is a good novel, it takes quite a while to really get going. About the first half of the novel is spent introducing the characters, adding atmosphere and explaining all of the backstory, with the second half of the novel being a much more compelling and focused thriller story.

Even so, this isn’t to say that the first half of the novel is bad. Yes, it’s very slow-paced, but this is kind of the point. A lot of the chilling dystopian horror of this novel comes from how everyday life in the story’s alternate 1950s isn’t that different from the actual 1950s.

The parts of the novel where relatively little actually happens are so chillingly fascinating because of how easily and seamlessly the dystopian fascism of the story blends in with 1950s Britain. How the stuffy, formal world of 1950s Britain sits so easily alongside cruel, harsh authoritarianism. It’s really creepy.

Likewise, whilst this story certainly reminded me of a TV series I saw a couple of years ago called “SS-GB“, the frequent focus on ordinary, everyday life in the first half of the story lends everything a much more plausibly dystopian atmosphere than the more overt melodrama of a typical “What if Britain lost WW2?” alternate history story.

The atmosphere and level of background detail in these parts of the story is also pretty interesting too. In addition to having this wonderfully creepy 1950s-style atmosphere and some clever satirical moments, the level of thought that has been put into the story’s timeline is really astonishing. Yes, a lot of this detail is relayed to the reader through numerous random conversations about politics etc.. but you really get the sense that this chillingly dystopian timeline could have happened.

Even though the novel was published in 2012, the story’s criticisms of nationalism seem eerily prescient when read in this age of Brexit, Trump etc.. However, a lot of this is probably because the novel was written as a riposte to the then-upcoming Scottish independence referendum (with a few polemics against the SNP at various points within the novel).

And, as mentioned earlier, “Dominion” turns into more of a focused and fast-paced thriller novel later in the story. These parts of the story work reasonably well and remain brilliantly suspenseful throughout (with the 1950s-style London smog adding a claustrophobic element to some scenes too). Not only are they a very refreshing change of pace from the slower first half of the story, but thanks to all of the characterisation and background details earlier, they also have a lot more dramatic impact than a typical thriller novel too.

In terms of the characters, they’re really brilliant. Yes, there is a lot of time devoted to characterisation and flashback scenes (which can slow the story down quite a bit), but this results in some really interesting and realistic characters. And, as you would expect from a dystopian novel, most of the characters lead fairly bleak and miserable lives too. Although this can make the novel fairly depressing at times, it fits in really well with the setting and themes of the story – in addition to making the story’s more hopeful moments stand out really well too.

Plus, like in Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels, the most interesting characters are the ones who don’t quite “fit in” with the world around them – with Frank being the best example. In addition to several chilling backstory segments about how he was bullied at school, his somewhat cautious and nervous outlook on the world (in addition to the psychological strain of having to keep some fairly major military secrets) is a refreshing change from the more bold and extroverted characters typically found in thriller novels.

As for the writing, Sansom’s third-person narration uses a slightly formal and descriptive – but reasonably “matter of fact” – style that goes really well with the novel’s 1950s setting, whilst still being a very readable modern novel.

Given how well Sansom was able to add a 16th century flavour to the modern narration in his “Shardlake” novels, it’s really interesting to see how he does something similar with a 1950s setting. Yes, there are a few slightly clunky elements to the writing (eg: phonetic Scottish accents, random political conversations etc..) but, for the most part, it works reasonably well.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a typical modern C. J. Sansom novel. I’ve already talked about how the first half of the novel is ridiculously slow-paced when compared to the more thrilling second half but, as you would expect from a C. J. Sansom novel, this one is ridiculously long too.

The hardback edition that I read is 569 pages long (not including the 20-30 additional pages of historical notes, essays etc.. at the end). And, looking online, the paperback edition is 700+ pages long (presumably due to the smaller page size). So, yes, this is a long novel that could have probably benefitted from a bit of trimming.

All in all, this is a pretty good – but not perfect- novel. It’s chillingly atmospheric and brilliantly detailed – however, the story doesn’t really get going until about halfway through the book. Likewise, it’s probably a little bit too long too. Even so, the level of atmosphere, suspense, characterisation and detail in this story is well worth sticking around for. But, if you want to see Sansom at his absolute best, read his “Shardlake” novels instead.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might get a four.

Advertisements

Review: “Heart Of Desire – 11.11.11 Redux” by Kate Robinson (Novel)

First of all, full disclosure. As anyone who has read this old interview will know, the author of the book I’ll be reviewing today is a friend of mine from when I was at university.

Back in 2014, she sent me a first edition copy of “Heart Of Desire”. Although we had discussed the novel before it was published and I was eager to read it, I unfortunately only ended up reading about half of it at the time (probably because it was during my “watch DVDs instead of reading books” phase).

However, shortly after finishing the previous book I reviewed, I suddenly remembered this book. And, since I seem to be more interested in reading than I was a couple of years ago, I thought that I’d give this book another try. After all, I was curious to see how the story would finish (and, wow, I’ve just noticed that I’m mentioned in the acknowledgments at the end of the book 🙂 )

So, let’s take a look at “Heart Of Desire”. Needless to say, this review will contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2014 Tootie-Do Press (US) paperback edition of “Heart Of Desire” that I read.

“Heart Of Desire” is a 1990s-style, new age-themed sci-fi/thriller/alternate history novel that takes place in America. The story begins during the early-mid 2000s with a character called Teresa Vaughn, whose infant daughter Mikka mysteriously disappears and then reappears a few minutes later.

Then we flash forward to August 2009. The 44th US President – Harris Cantrell Henry – is travelling to Air Force One, when he receives an alarming report from NIHSA (an amalgamation of several US agencies).

Once the plane is in the air, President Henry is in the middle of a meeting with his staff when he suddenly has a disturbing vision of mysterious telepathic beings called “reviewers” who warn him not to interfere with their plans to alter Earth….

One of the first things that I will say about “Heart Of Desire” is that it is a brilliantly eccentric mixture of “X-Files”-style conspiracy paranoia, 1960s-style new age mysticism and something like a low-mid budget 1990s-style thriller movie. It’s different to pretty much any other novel that I’ve read and, although it probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it certainly grew on me as I kept reading it.

My reactions to reading “Heart Of Desire” were surprisingly varied. Initially, it just seemed like a reasonably slow-paced sci-fi/political thriller novel, then it went in a much more suspenseful and paranoid direction, then it was gloriously cheesy (in the way that the best “so bad that it’s good” movies are) and then, during the final third or so, the story turns into a darker and more gripping thriller story. Plus, although “Heart Of Desire” doesn’t contain that many horror elements, there are at least a couple of disturbing moments that will catch you by surprise too.

If you’ve ever watched a few seasons of “The X-Files”, watched “Twin Peaks” and/or read a few new age books, then you’ll probably love the fact that this novel references pretty much every “classic” conspiracy theory and/or new age thing under the sun.

There are references to: ancient aliens, CIA plots, Bible codes, morgellons, akashic records, Route 666, MKULTRA, UFOs, 2012, reptilians, Operation Paperclip, astral projection, the Age Of Aquarius, Area 51 etc.. The sheer number of references gives this story a gloriously over-the-top quality that really brought a smile to my face.

This also helps to add to the story’s endearingly nostalgic 1990s-style atmosphere too – since it evokes a more innocent time when conspiracy theories were hilariously bizarre things – rather than grim political reality (eg: the Snowden revelations, Trump’s tweeting, Brexit etc..).

Although this story is set in the early 2010s, it is a very 1990s novel. As mentioned in the author interview, the first draft of the story was written in 1999 and later updated. Everything from the story’s optimistic “The West Wing”-style depiction of the US presidency to the occasional 90s cultural reference and the “X-Files” style focus on conspiracy theories is wonderfully ’90s 🙂 Seriously, if you want some 1990s nostalgia, then this story is worth taking a look at.

In terms of the narration, the novel uses a mixture of slightly informal narration, more “matter of fact” thriller novel narration and more descriptive “literary” narration. Although this style takes a little while to get used to, it works really well for the most part. Likewise, aside from the occasional lecture or info dump, the dialogue in this story is reasonably well-written too. It’s kind of a like a mixture of more realistic dialogue and more stylised movie/TV-style dialogue.

This story is a fairly political one that leans fairly heavily to the left (in a slightly 1960s-style way) with themes including the environment, Buddhism, corporate manipulation, right-wing hypocrisy etc.. Although a lot of this stuff works really well in the context of the story, the novel does include the occasional lecture or moment of unintentional comedy. But, fairly often, the political elements are handled in a more understated way (eg: by just leading by example with regard to the characters, the descriptions, the story itself etc..).

Plus, the more earnestly idealistic elements of the story help to add to the 1960s-90s style atmosphere of the story, whilst also adding some originality too. Seriously, at least a couple of the main characters are hippies (New Age ministers to be precise) – how often do you see this in a thriller novel?

As for the story’s characters, they’re reasonably good. The novel contains a mixture of more “realistic” characters, such as Teresa (a former journalist) and President Henry (a vaguely Obama/ Bill Clinton-like character), several mysteriously otherworldly characters, a chilling villain or two and a few 1960s-style New Age/Hippie characters too. As hinted at earlier, the fact that the novel’s protagonists aren’t really typical thriller novel protagonists also helps to add some originality to the story too.

In terms of pacing, this story is fairly ok. Whilst the novel starts off fairly slow-paced, it gradually becomes faster and more gripping as the story progresses. Even so, there are occasional moments of description or backstory when you’d expect the story to move forward in a more focused way. But, for the most part, the pacing is reasonably good. Likewise, this story is a fairly standard length (363 pages) for a modern novel and it doesn’t seem too long.

All in all, this story isn’t your typical thriller novel. If you’re a fan of the 1990s, a fan of cheesy sci-fi, interested in the 1960s and/or are Fox Mulder from “The X-Files”, then you’ll probably have fun with this novel. Yes, it’s a little bit slow to start and there’s the occasional lecture etc.. but this is the kind of story that brought a warm smile to my face in the way that the best movies and TV shows from the 1980s/90s do. As I said, it isn’t for everyone, but if you want a thriller novel that is a little bit different, then this one is well worth checking out.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

The Complete “Conspiracy 1983” – All Six Pages Of My Retro Sci-fi Comic

2015 Complete conspiracy 1983

Well, in case you missed it (or started reading it halfway through), I thought that I’d show you a complete version of “Conspiracy 1983” – my ‘so bad that it’s good‘ short retro sci-fi comic.

This comic was interesting to work on, although it didn’t really turn out quite as well as my “Dead Sector” comic did. Still, judge for yourself…

As usual, all of the comic pages in this post are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

 "Conspiracy 1983 - Cover" By C. A. Brown

“Conspiracy 1983 – Cover” By C. A. Brown

 "Conspiracy 1983 - Page 1" By C. A. Brown

“Conspiracy 1983 – Page 1” By C. A. Brown

 "Conspiracy 1983 - Page 2" By C. A. Brown

“Conspiracy 1983 – Page 2” By C. A. Brown

 "Conspiracy 1983 - Page 3" By C. A. Brown

“Conspiracy 1983 – Page 3” By C. A. Brown

 "Conspiracy 1983 - Page 4" By C. A. Brown

“Conspiracy 1983 – Page 4” By C. A. Brown

 "Conspiracy 1983 - Page 5" By C. A. Brown

“Conspiracy 1983 – Page 5” By C. A. Brown

 "Conspiracy 1983 - Page 6" By C. A. Brown

“Conspiracy 1983 – Page 6” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (11th April 2015)

Predictable plot twist! Melodramatic screaming! What else could it be but the final page of “Conspiracy 1983” – my ‘so bad that it’s good’ retro sci-fi comic.

Well, this comic has been interesting to work on – although I don’t think it was quite as good as my last attempt at making a comic.

Although these short comics were a lot of fun to make, I’ll probably go back to making “ordinary” daily drawings/paintings for a while at least.

As usual, this comic page is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Conspiracy 1983 - Page 6" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Conspiracy 1983 – Page 6” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (10th April 2015)

Mysterious devices! Melodramatic cliffhangers! What else could it be but the fifth page of my ‘so bad that it’s good‘ alternate history sci-fi comic – “Conspiracy 1983”.

Stay tuned for the final page tomorrow.

As usual, this comic page is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Conspiracy 1983 - Page 5" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Conspiracy 1983 – Page 5” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art ( 9th April 2015)

Blurry Photographs! Anachronistic pop culture references! What else could it be but the fourth page of my “so bad that it’s good” retro sci-fi alternate history sci-fi comic – “Conspiracy 1983“.

Unfortunately, the art on this page didn’t turn out that well – I don’t know, I guess that this page was slightly rushed. Still, stay tuned for the next page tomorrow.

As usual, this comic page is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Conspiracy 1983 - Page 4" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Conspiracy 1983 – Page 4” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (8th April 2015)

Numbers stations! Secret bases! Yes, what else could it be, but the third page of “Conspiracy 1983” – my ‘so bad that it’s good’ alternate history retro sci-fi comic. Stay tuned for another page tomorrow.

As usual, this comic page is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Conspiracy 1983 - Page 3" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Conspiracy 1983 – Page 3” By C. A. Brown