The Domino Men (Gollancz S.F.)
by Jonathan Barnes
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575082311
Date: 12 February 2009 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
The much-anticipated second novel from Jonathan Barnes now released by Gollancz in mass market paperback. Barnes is the author of The Somnambulist, a Victorian caper which I reviewed a year ago and which was greeted with equal enthusiasm from all corners of the reviewing fraternity. Barnes' follow-up is a sequel to his previous novel and looks to have just as much grotesque charm.
"A young man discovers a manuscript and so begins a bizarre tale that brings together his grandfather, every conspiracy theory you've ever heard about the royal family and the true story about where the power of Number 10 really lies."
I've yet to find a poor review of Jonathan Barnes' debut novel The Somnambulist -- this in spite of some intensive googling. It seems that his Victorian fantasy caper, which I myself enthused about roundly back in our February 2007 issue, has been enjoyed by pretty much everyone who has read it. Its recent publication in the US by William Morrow will no doubt find more folks willing to join the legions of Barnes admirers, and here in the UK his follow-up novel The Domino Men has just been published. Double helpings all round!
For those of us -- myself amongst them -- who would revel in another trip back to the fog-bound, gas-lit streets of Barnes' Victorian London, this sequel does not pander to our wishes. It is, in many ways, a daring and unconventional follow-up, for though Barnes cherry-picks elements from The Somnambulist, he admirably resists the temptation (so many new writers do not) of simply regurgitating that first book. Instead The Domino Men is a story of modern-day London, of a city that is recognisable to those of us who know it well. Barnes still offers us fog-bound streets, but this time they are lit with electricity and littered with empty Big Mac cartons.
The story is for the most part related as memoir -- a humdrum young man, Henry Lamb, is one of the innumerable office clerks of London. He battles through the traffic on his bicycle to get to his boring job and battles again to get home to his rented room. Of course, this thin veneer of normalcy hides the eccentric truths that are fast becoming trademarks in the novels of Jonathan Barnes and, of course, nothing in Henry's seemingly innocuous existence is accidental.
Significantly, Henry's grandfather lies in hospital, comatose and close to death, yet in spite of this minor impediment, he is playing a key role in a decades-old struggle to keep the city from falling into the hands of a monster. Henry is drawn into the slipstream world of "The Directorate" -- a rather bonkers MI6-type outfit -- who are charged with fighting against the fall of the city, a situation brought about by a mad, bad bargain apparently made by Queen Victoria. Seconded as an agent, Henry encounters any number of preposterous situations -- not least a playground tussle with The Prefects, aka The Domino Men, classic comic creations whom readers of The Somnambulist will recognize and delight in.
Barnes' work has an engaging lunacy about it, yet does not conform to the established tropes of comic fantasy. Madcap though his stories are, he relates them with a crisp, disciplined and uncluttered understanding of both situation comedy and the fantasy genre. Never does he allow characters to make the mistake of saying (metaphorically), "Look how funny I am". This is key in comedy writing -- the characters should never be aware of their comedy. For them the situation is extremely serious, and in the case of The Domino Men and poor Henry, it is perilous and hilarious too. A fine follow-up to The Somnambulist.