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.

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Review: “Brave New World” By Aldous Huxley (Novel)

“Brave New World” is one of those novels that I’d been meaning to read for literally a decade or so but never got round to it.

Although one of the very first Iron Maiden albums that I ever bought (at about the age of thirteen or fourteen) was named after this book, the thing that made me interested in “Brave New World” was the fact that someone in one of my seminar groups when I was at university kept speaking highly of it. So, I bought a copy of it and… about a decade or so later, I finally got round to actually reading it.

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

This is the 2001 Voyager Classics (UK) paperback reprint of “Brave New World” (1932) that I read.

“Brave New World” is set in a distant future “utopia”, where people are cloned and organised into a hierarchical structure. It is a world where a type of heavily-controlled community-based hedonism is used to maintain order and conformity. However, one member of this world’s upper class – Bernard Marx – is having subversive thoughts of solitude and monogamy and other such things.

After convincing his occasional girlfriend Lenina to join him, he sets out on a “research” expedition to one of the few parts of Earth that isn’t controlled by the utopia. Whilst visiting there, Bernard meets the son of a former citizen of the utopia (who was accidentally abandoned there during another expedition). Out of curiosity, he decides to take the young man back to the utopia to see what he makes of it….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I both loved and hated it at the same time. It is a brilliantly clever, thought-provoking and unique novel that is filled with quotable moments. It is a novel that can both amuse and horrify you with expert ease. Yet, at the same time, it’s also a book I found myself strongly disagreeing with at times and rolling my eyes at occasionally. Yet, there’s no denying that it has earned it’s reputation as a classic.

This novel is both the literal opposite of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and yet also very similar to it too. In short, it is a novel about individuality versus conformity. This is the only real way to look at this novel. If you try to break the novel’s opinions down into polarised modern categories, then you’ll end up confused. It was written during a more nuanced age (in Britain at least) and thus can be both left and right wing at the same time. In other words, it rises above simplistic political categories.

For example, the novel is both strongly anti-capitalist and strongly anti-communist at the same time. It contains bitterly satirical depictions of advertising, fame, commercialism, class systems etc… Yet, at the same time, the novel is also sharply critical of many of the hallmarks of communist regimes (eg: propaganda, brainwashing, ideological censorship etc…), and the utopia’s motto of “everyone belongs to everyone else” is also used to critique communism too. In both cases, the novel brilliantly criticises how these ideologies promote unthinking conformity.

One of the central themes in the novel is the horror of mass production. Not only are people quite literally cloned and raised in a mechanical fashion, but the religion of the novel is based on Henry Ford‘s production lines. Characters exclaim things like “Oh, Ford!” (rather than “Oh, Lord!”) – and there are even sign of the cross -like gestures that mimic the “T” of the Model T Ford. Likewise, there’s also a lot of darkly comedic satire of Pavlovian conditioning, subliminal messaging and the pharmaceutical industry too.

This novel also tries to be a fierce satire of hedonism too. I’m guessing that if you grew up in the more traditionalist age that the novel was written in, then you’d probably find the novel’s depiction of hedonism (including things like *gasp* contraceptives, popular music, recreational drug use etc..) to be frighteningly immoral and the novel’s celebration of religion, ageing, mourning, Shakespeare, self-flagellation etc.. to be warmly reassuring. Still, if you think about the novel as being about individuality versus conformity, then the novel’s satire still makes some sense when read today.

And, yes, this is what this novel is truly about. Individuality. Often, the characters’ opinions will be shown to be part of their conditioning or there will be these absolutely beautiful passages about the joys of solitude (and, if you’re a bit of an introvert, then these passages are still thrillingly subversive in this age of smartphones, social media etc..). If you ignore all of the story’s traditionalist moralising, then this is a brilliant novel about the value of self-reflection and thinking for yourself.

In terms of the writing, it is surprisingly good and – once you’ve got used to Huxley’s slightly older writing style – it is a joy to read.

One of the interesting techniques that Huxley uses is to suddenly jump from scene to scene and conversation to conversation very quickly (with about six pages just consisting of short paragraphs from different alternating conversations). This is vaguely similar to the style of later writers like William S. Burroughs and it was possibly inspired by the modernist writers of the 1920s.

Likewise, the novel’s narration is filled with pithy observations, darkly comedic dialogue and other such things too (which occasionally reminded me of later science fiction stories by Philip K. Dick). The story also contains a few almost stream-of-consciousness like segments that could easily have come from a gritty, edgy novel written thirty years later.

In terms of how this eighty-six year old novel has aged, it has aged both brilliantly and terribly. Whilst there are some parts of this book that reflect the attitudes and prejudices of the time it was written, other parts of this book still seem remarkably ahead of the time they were written (but behind our time). Put simply, this book is a satire of the 1960s… that was written during the 1930s. Then again, it was written a couple of years after the “Roaring Twenties” – so, this might explain it too.

Still, some other parts of the novel are unintentionally modern – such as the use of metric measurements (they’re ordinary now, but were no doubt frighteningly futuristic during the days of ye olde imperial measurements), or the novel’s cynical critique of mainstream entertainment. Not to mention that, once you read this novel, you’ll start to notice references to it in all sorts of other things (for example, the movie “Demolition Man” is heavily inspired by it, to the point of actually calling a character Lenina Huxley).

But, some of the novel’s satire falls flat when read today. Yes, the criticisms of conformity in the novel still carry some weight. But, the idea that hedonism is a symbol of conformity seems cruelly ironic these days. Seriously, if there’s one thing we need more of in this miserable age, it is good, honest hedonism!

All in all, this is a well-written and thought-provoking novel. It was wildly ahead of it’s time, but lags somewhat behind our time. It’s a satire of the 1960s that was written in the 1930s. It’s a novel that, even when you disagree with it, you’ll still be impressed by the skill of the arguments. It is a novel about the value of thinking for yourself. Yes, as old dystopian novels go, I still prefer Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (at least the dystopia actually looks like a dystopia…), but I can see why “Brave New World” is regarded as a classic.

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