***SPOILER ALERT***Unlike many readers and film fans I don't have a problem with spoilers. This is probably because of an oddity of my father. From a very young age I would happily watch Hammer horror films with him, and wasn't in the least bit scared as he would chat to me about how Christopher Lee was about to go and have his tea after he'd stuck his fangs into the next Dracula's bride. It was hard to be scared after that! It also made me aware that at the end of most films everything will work out ok, so I guess I became more interested in the way the plot progressed and worked, and what the characters were like, than the ultimate ending. As a result spoilers don't matter to me. I know how the book ends, so what? It's the journey that matters rather than the destination.
As a result I tend to be the sort of person that always reads the notes about the book first. You know the sort of things, the prefaces about the author's life and work, and editorial info about the text, the kind of material that might contain spoilers, but also (especially in the case of historical novels) information on how the book came to be written, what it was influenced by, what the book contains that is based on the truth, and what is a figment of the author's imagination. For me with an historical novel this is important, I need to know what is grounded in reality, I feel irritated if I discover an "interesting fact" through the course of the read, that proves to be imagination, whereas if I know where I stand at the start, I'm more entranced by the entire read. This, I know, is just a quirk of me, and other readers won't feel, read, or react the same.
Over many years of doing this, I've never had a problem. I've never regretted reading a spoiler, or knowing more about the author's mindset at the start than through discovering it in the novel. That is, until I came to reading C.J. Sansom's Dominion.
Let me say first of all that Dominion is actually a pretty good novel. It is an alternative history of Europe, and especially England, rather in the style of Robert Harris' Fatherland but set against a rather different context. In Dominion Winston Churchill doesn't become Prime Minister following the disasters of Norway, instead Halifax takes power and negotiates a settlement with the Nazis. Britain remains free but becomes progressively more fascist.
The novel opens in 1952, a new monarch will shortly be crowned, but there is little of the vibrancy you would normally associate with a post-war Britain. As the Empire falls apart, Britain is a grey, sombre, sad land. With no Labour government there is no emergence of a welfare state, no National Health Service, anti-semitism and fascism is on the rise, and the Special Branch work hand in glove with their good friends the Gestapo. Hitler is on his death-bed and Nazis everywhere are jumpy and increasingly brutal, embroiled in an unwinnable war in Russia, and increasingly concerned about the line of succession.
Against this background a small group of people form a resistance group loyal to Churchill, who is on the run. When a British scientist inadvertently becomes the possessor of the secret of the atom bomb, civil servant David is forced into action. His wife, Sarah, unbeknown to David, is also forced into action but for rather different reasons. Set against the (true) events of the Great London Smog of 1952 this is an atmospheric, action packed tale with some wonderful historical verisimilitude that is guaranteed to make anybody wonder about what would have happened in a rather different Britain.
Most of all though it's the diatribes in the notes that left a really unpleasant taste in my mouth. I know (also from the notes) that Sansom was ill while writing this novel, so that may account for some of what is going on, but it does spoil what is otherwise a decent, if not top notch, thriller. Two stars.