I usually don’t like to give bad reviews. A lot of work goes into writing a book, especially on the author’s part, but we don’t want to forget the staff working for the publisher. There are certain reviewers out there who take to much pleasure in their ability to savage other’s creations. There is nothing wrong with gaining notoriety as a book reviewer, but when you are best known for writing bad reviews it becomes harder to really enjoy a book when your audience is expecting you to trash it. So if I have to be critical of a novel, I try to make it as constructive as possible, but that can be a hard rule to follow.
Take the Sidewise nominated novel The Windsor Faction by D.J. Taylor. It is set in an alternate 1930s Britain. In this timeline, Wallis Simpson dies before her marriage to Edward VIII could spark the abdication crisis (one of history’s little ironies when you consider that the Church of England was created so that a King had the freedom to marry whoever he wanted). The depressed Edward VIII continues to reign as king, while history marches forward relatively unchanged. Hitler still invades Poland in 1939, but the story is set primarily during the Phoney War period.
There is a conspiracy between anti-war conservatives and anti-Semitic fascists who want the king to apply pressure on the government to negotiate with Germany and end the war. Although the story is told from multiple viewpoints, the main character is Cynthia Kirkpatrick, a young British expat whose family seems wealthy enough that they don’t need to work, but still poor enough that they are cut out of the upper crust of British society. She unwittingly falls into the secret war between the conspirators and the government agents trying to uncover their identities.
I will be completely honest when I admit that I only read about 40% of the book before I gave up. The Windsor Faction is, for a lack of a better description, boring. It was difficult to sympathize with any of the characters, especially the wealthy ones who spent most of time pitying their predicament and reminded me of the time I failed to get into Downton Abbey. It was really disappointing, especially when you consider this had all the hallmarks of an entertaining spy thriller, but it lacked any interesting action beats. I realize James Bond and other spies of his ilk (i.e. A Kill in the Morning) aren’t always plausible, what with their ice fortresses and lazer watches, but I don’t read fiction to be reminded of the real world.
When I am commuting to and from work, eating my lunch or relaxing in bed, I don’t want to be reminded of the dreary world I already inhabit. I want to escape into an exciting universe and witness interesting characters take part in a thrilling and dangerous adventures. If your book can’t get me lost in your world and make me forget for a few brief, glorious moments about the “real world” then their really is no reason to continue slogging through page after page of your dreary wasteland.
Still as I said before, I try to be constructive in all of my reviews. The Windsor Faction is certainly well written and thoroughly researched literary novel. There are a lot of obscure historical figures from British history and it does dispel the myth that all of Britain was united against the Nazi menace from the start. If this had been a history book covering the British anti-war movement in the 1930s and 40s, I probably would have given it a much better review. It suffers from the fact, however, that its literary style takes precedence over the story.
On its face there is nothing wrong with literary fiction in a science fiction setting (see Ian Sales‘ “Adrift on the Sea of Rains“), but to often literary fiction authors become obsessed with the serious undertones of their story and miss the real reason science fiction works so well with the masses: a chance to read a good story in an alien setting. While alternate history (usually) lacks the ray guns and robots of “sci-fi” works that literary authors abhor, which makes it popular among that class of writer, that still doesn’t give them a pass on writing a readable story.
I did some research before I sat down to write this review to see what others thought of The Windsor Faction. Professional book reviewers for major periodicals tended to praise the novel, while your average Amazon or Goodreads reviewer recommended you pass. I am going to have to go along with “unwashed masses” on this one. Avoid this pretentious work of alternate history fiction that does not deserve this year’s Sidewise Award.