Much like American history, British history seems to have a default setting when it comes to alternate history novels. For U.S. history, that setting is the Civil War, for which innumerable stories playing around with different outcomes and their consequences. For British history, however, the default to which authors keep returning is 1940, as they hypothesize how very different things might have turned out had Winston Churchill not become prime minister and fought on. Invariably the outcome is worse for Britain and the world, as the story's protagonists have to cope with the jackbooted heel of the Third Reich pressing down upon the nation's neck.
C. J. Sansom's book is just one example of this. Set in 1952, it imagines a world in which Lord Halifax was selected as prime minister in May 1940 instead of Churchill. The result is grim: after the German triumph in France in June, the British agree to a treaty that cedes domination of Europe to the Nazis. With their empire increasingly straining for independence, fascism steadily takes root in British politics. Yet a resistance movement headed by Churchill fights back against the slowly settling authoritarianism of the British government. Among their number is David Fitzgerald, a veteran of the "1939-40" war who supplies intelligence to the Resistance from his post as a civil servant in the Dominions Office. But when a friend from his years at university reaches out to him, Fitzgerald finds himself drawn into far more dangerous work. Before long Fitzgerald is on the run with his friend, with both Special Branch and a Gestapo agent hard on his heels.
The best alternate history novels tell gripping stories within a plausible world. Sansom succeeds brilliantly in the latter respect, as he has envisioned an alternative outcome that is distinctively different without being unrealistic. Yet the considerable amount of work Sansom put into detailing his ahistorical setting proves a weakness, as the author succumbs to the temptation to display his research in the text, Few chapters go by without details dropped about recent history or headlines from the contemporary world, all done in clunky bits of exposition. Though it demonstrates the impressive amount of thought Sansom put into his book, the sheer weight of it drags down the text. So too does Sansom's laborious retelling of his characters' backstories, which often drain any momentum from the plot. The combination causes Sansom's novel to collapse from its own weight, making it one of the more disappointing examples of a genre from which readers have an abundance of alternatives from which to choose.