I’m an avid reader of historical fiction, mainly 19th and 20th century, and especially anything around World War 2. One day I will finish my list of the best WW2 fiction because there are some I really must revisit. In any case, I picked up C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid a few years ago and was so enthralled by it I immediately ordered a copy of his latest novel, Dominion, which I only just found the time to read. Sansom’s first love seems to be writing Tudor-era detective stories and while that period is not my favourite I love his story telling abilities so much that I may just have to give his Matthew Shardlake novels a try.
Winter in Madrid takes place in both England and Spain (as the titles clearly alludes to) in post Spanish civil war times and at the beginnings of WW2, when the Germans seemed to be galloping all over Europe. There are spies, intrigue, battle scenes, plot twists, gorgeous, courageous women and men, and some amazingly beautiful and tragic descriptions of war-torn Spain. Similar to Switzerland, Spain was a haven for undercover operations and tremendous spy opportunities, and Sansom takes advantage of this situation to build his story. With his reluctant British spy, a villain who may or may not really be a villain, a missing soldier, a woman who knows she is in the wrong place in her heart and another woman who will fight for her country until the end there is so much going on that you really feel right there among them.
I’ve read that people have compared Sansom’s writing to Hemingway, which I don’t especially agree with seeing as I think the comparison is solely based on the fact that he wrote about Spain in the 30’s and 40’s. I have seen other comparisons to the great Graham Greene, and I actually agree with this. This has reminded me that I must revisit some of Greene’s classics. In any case, Winter in Madrid is a great read, especially if you are into spy and war novels.
It took me a bit longer to get into Dominion, but that was mainly because it had just been released and I didn’t want the hardback, so I got the large print paperback (I was being impatient). It was just too big to read in bed. Anyway, I picked it back up recently and immediately fell into the plot. It’s based in England in 1952 in an alternate universe. In this universe Churchill lost his battle to fight the Germans and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940. This surrender allows them to maintain certain liberties such as maintaining an independent government but this also means there is a far-right party in place with the loss of many civil liberties, and a heavy Nazi influence. The main character, David, works as a civil servant for the Dominions but also as a spy for the Resistance, headed by Churchill. The story revolves around Frank, one of David’s old school friends who has a secret that could end the ongoing war, and how David’s team try to save him, while a notorious German Jew hunter tries to track them down.
I loved how Sansom used real life events and people and wove them into this alternate universe. People like Mosley and Beaverbrook head up the government while Churchill directs the tenacious and brave Resistance. The general population seems to be a mix of those who just keep their head down, those who inform on others and those who are dreaming of a new world. The British Special Branch maintains the peace with brutality and Mosley’s Blackshirts are given free reign.
This outcome isn’t so hard to imagine, although I have a feeling that if this had happened in real life Hitler would not have been so genial to the Brits. One will never know… But Dominion plays a great role in jumping on the “what ifs” and taking them to the next level. I also liked how all of the characters are just normal, flawed humans. There are no dashing Resistance saviours or sharp-jawed Nazi officers, just everyday people trying to carve a better world for the future amidst once power-hungry rulers who don’t really know what they want anymore.
A definite must-read for those who love mid 20th century historical fiction, but also avid fans of novels that focus on the theme of utopia/dystopia. My two favourite themes! I’m looking forward to what Sansom comes up with next – I think he has a great imagination for this genre and a fantastic ability to weave interesting plots and characters together.