Review: Dominion by CJ Sansom

Jessica Atler 25 November 2012

Dominion, by CJ Sansom

2012 Mantle

I was 16 when I got into the Matthew Shardlake series; set in the Tudor era, their protagonist works on commission for the memorable Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell and Catherine Parr, characters modern day writers never tire of resurrecting. Fast-paced, intricate and absorbing, Sansom has done well to live up to the series in his new novel, Dominion, published to critical acclaim earlier this autumn.

Yet the reception of Dominion has been far from uniform. Here, Sansom departs from Henry VIII’s visceral world, making his entry into an imagined apocalypse – what, Sansom intriguingly speculates, would have happened if the second world war had ended five years earlier, if fascism reigned? `Nazi fingers’ reach into every dark corner of the state’ and the vividly imagined Auxiliary Police run riot in this chilling parallel world.

The London air is thick with a smog that occludes vision, optical and political; resistance builds in this climactic novel, effectively executed through Sansom’s dramatic juxtaposition of space with claustrophobia. Interned in a Birmingham jail, disturbed scientist Frank Muncaster can only provide the answers once freed.

At times, Dominion is a little algebraic – all politicians are evil, and the division between underworld and overworld seems at times over-dichotomous. Sansom’s identification with his characters often leaves a lot to be desired; one cannot help but identify a lack of empathy with some, and an excess of it with others. Fanatics, pacifics and anarchists abound, each brought into varying degrees of relief as the plot develops – we are never quite sure with whom we are supposed to sympathise – whether, in fact, sympathy is an emotion in play in this dynamic at all. This lucid, remorseless and dizzyingly eerie counter-factual historical world is a triumphant creation.

Jessica Atler