I’m still on my audiobook kick, and I’m still sorting potential titles by length. Dominion weighs in at a solid 21 hours, or just over 700 pages in print. In an odd way, that’s its downfall: length. If this were a short novel, or better yet a short story, its side-story plot arc would be interesting, if still not worth all the world-building. As it is, this is a very well-written alternate history novel that manages to realistically document a quite boring back corner of an epic war.
The premise, or at least the advertised premise, is a great one. In 1940, in real life, when Neville Chamberlain stepped down as prime minister of Britain, Winston Churchill became prime minister, and led Britain and the free world to stand up against the Nazis.
In Dominion, when Chamberlain steps down, Edward Halifax is made prime minister instead. Halifax immediately surrenders to the Nazis and Britain becomes a territory of the Third Reich. Churchill goes into hiding and leads a far-reaching Resistance against the occupation of the Nazis. The first chapter of the book depicts that pivotal moment in history with vivid realism and gravitas befitting it.
Unfortunately, that’s almost the only time we see Churchill in the entire novel, and it’s the last time the actual action in the book matches up with the enormous scale invoked by writing an alternate history of World War II.
Instead of focusing on the entire British Resistance, Sansom focuses on a single man and what he might (or might not) know. Frank Muncaster is a sad, frightened man who survived a traumatic childhood and an awful relationship with his brother to find a successful career in science. When his mother dies, his brother returns to Britain from his post at an American University. In a drunken moment, Frank’s brother tells him a dark secret about his real work—on the American nuclear bomb effort. That tidbit drives Frank over the edge; he shoves his brother out of the window, trashes his apartment, and gets himself committed to an asylum.
Somehow, both the Germans and the Resistance hear about this incident, and both deduce that Frank’s secret will be useful to their side. The Resistance finds that one of their agents—the secretly Jewish David Fitzgerald, who also works for the government—knows Frank, and in fact might be the only one Frank’s willing to trust.
The Germans send a sharp SS detective named Gunther after Frank. Gunther seems to be meant to be a likeable Nazi, such as he can be. He seems reasonable and hates the strongarm tactics of the “Special Branch” of British police, but he also hates Jews and has a real knack for psychological torture. So he’s not likeable, in fact, at all. It seems as though Sansom was shooting for a conflicted agent of an evil government, like Tom Rob Smith’s Leo Demidov. But Gunther’s hatefulness spoils the conflict, and he instead comes off as a contemptible monster who remains infuriatingly ignorant of his own monstrosity.
We never hear exactly what kind of information Muncaster has, only that letting it into the hands of the Nazis would be the same as giving them a nuke. Unfortunately, without specifics, it’s very difficult to believe that this magical nuclear bomb formula is at all realistic, and I never felt that it was as important as the novel tries to make it. The secret’s vagueness turns it into a MacGuffin, a meaningless object that the author makes all the characters want, in order to drive the plot.
If Sansom wanted to write a book about the futility and meaninglessness of war, he’s done a pretty good job. Nobody’s happy, and everybody, at least on the Resistance side, is ready to die for something that they don’t even get to know about. Almost everybody depicted is a pawn in the strategies of higher-ups that we never see. If this were a short story, it might be quite good, but as a novel the futility of the characters’ actions makes the reading feel meaningless as well.
It’s too bad, then, that Sansom does such a damn good job with his characters. Though Gunther never quite gelled for me, David and Frank are good, nuanced characters, and their actions and the consequences for them are believable and real. They’re just not very important.
Indeed, if Frank did fall into the Germans’ hands, his third-hand nuclear secret would probably not make things much worse. Even if it did, it would be years down the line; the Nazis would also have to acquire a lot of uranium to make a bomb and that doesn’t happen overnight. On the other hand, if the Resistance manages to get Frank out, his knowledge will have even less effect on the war. They will not know anything new, and losing one tidbit of questionable intel is not likely to dishearten the Germans enough to make them surrender.
The real problem here is that of the story window. If a novel goes to the trouble of rewriting history, then its plot should concern something that can only happen because of that rewrite. How about what happens if the Nazis do get a nuclear weapon? How about if German-controlled Britain invades America?
Instead of something unique to this world, we get a story about the layers of bureaucracy that plague even a group of rebel fighters, and this story could easily have taken place in World War II as we know it. Or in Vietnam, or even in Afghanistan or Iraq.
It’s almost a shame that Sansom’s writing is so good, because it sharpens the pain of such an irrelevant plot. Sansom himself seems to understand the smallness of his novel: he includes an epilogue that spans years and uncoils massive geopolitical events, following through on the promise inherent in an alternate history WWII novel. He traces the effects of Hitler’s eventual death, and the creeping success of the long-view Resistance strategy.
It’s a satisfying, bittersweet playing out of the promised epic battle. But it has absolutely nothing to do with the actions, efforts, or fates of the characters that Sansom asks you to spend 650 pages with. They are not even a footnote in the history of this fictional world, and I plan to forget them just as quickly.