The Domino Men
by Jonathan Barnes
Reviewed by Jeff VanderMeer
Washington Post Book World
The premise of Jonathan Barnes's frenetic, uneven, sometimes bleak Domino Men, a sequel to his first novel, The Somnambulist, sounds like a combination of spy novel and Lovecraft pastiche: From 1857 to the present day, the mysterious Directorate and the English monarchy's House of Windsor have waged a secret war against each other because of a pact between Queen Victoria and a supernatural monster known as Leviathan. Long ago, the queen accepted Leviathan's offer to "guide us, keep us, protect us [and] render us inviolate against invasion." In return, the queen promised to eventually hand over London to the monster.
Leviathan has been kept at bay due to the efforts of a missing Directorate agent named Estella, who must be found to end a stalemate in the conflict. The key to finding her lies with the Domino Men, two diabolical killers imprisoned within an infernal circle beneath 10 Downing Street.
The Somnambulist, set in 1901 (also in London), featured a wonderful freak show of magicians, time travelers and the undead. Barnes made this grotesquerie reader-friendly through brilliant narration and a dark sense of humor familiar to fans of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. With very different results, The Domino Men uses a similar mixture of the grotesque and humorous.
The narrator, Henry Lamb, works at a thankless job for the Civil Service Archive Unit. His father dead and his mother indifferent to him, Lamb is a loner who has a charming crush on his landlady. The only distinction he has achieved to date was as a child star on a BBC sitcom, "Worse Things Happen at Sea."
But Lamb comes from stock with higher ambitions, as he discovers when approached by sinister men after his grandfather collapses into a coma. The men tell him that his grandfather was a Directorate agent, and they want Lamb to take the old man's place. In a secret part of the London Eye Ferris wheel, he meets the head of the Directorate, Dedlock. "Wrinkled and puckered, wattled, creased and liver spotted," Dedlock, defender of the city, is almost as strange as Leviathan: He lives in water, has what appear to be gills and can inhabit the bodies of his employees.
When Lamb asks questions -- understandable given the circumstances! -- Dedlock tells him, "Comprehension is unnecessary. From now on you simply have to follow orders." Those orders include talking to the dangerous Domino Men about Estella, something Lamb dreads but does without much complaint.
Unfortunately, as the extent of Leviathan's evil plans becomes clear, I began to wish Lamb would question orders more. Instead, he obeys and obeys, despite operating in a miasma of ignorance. The result is a kind of narrative impotence. When a former agent pleads with Lamb to take action after a Domino Men jailbreak, Lamb merely replies, "What can I do?" Barnes eventually provides a good reason for Lamb's inaction, but that doesn't make his role as a chess piece any less problematic for the reader. Confusing matters further, another voice begins to hijack the narrative. Identified only at the novel's end, this narrator provides background on the queen's deal with Leviathan and briefly re-invigorates the story with its sarcastic counterpoint to Lamb's account. But soon the second narrator just seems repetitious, because there's no reason Lamb couldn't have related the same information himself.
However, nothing -- not the promise of its opening nor the lurching complications of its middle -- can prepare the reader for the shock of The Domino Men's resolution. It's one of the most perplexing endings in recent memory. Characters are brutally tortured while London suffers cataclysmic upheaval. A final, extremely odd science fiction twist brings the reader back to the realm of dark humor.
Perhaps the key to making sense of all this is to forget Lamb entirely and remember the book's title, which turns the spotlight on the Domino Men, those "creatures of fire and sulphur." Introduced in The Somnambulist, this leering pair, otherwise known as Hawker and Boon, are terrifying in a jovial, vaudevillian way: a demented, supernatural Tweedledum and Tweedledee who take pleasure in pain. They are Barnes's greatest achievement in this novel, and he gives them unmatched life and verve.
The jaded reader may doubt that Barnes intended this fusion of hysterical hilarity and frenetic nihilism, suspecting, instead, that the author simply surrendered to his material. Does he really mean to combine gonzo science fiction with detailed sadism? If he does, it's because he let the Domino Men -- more than Dedlock, Lamb or even Leviathan -- take control of this novel.
Otherwise, all is chaos.
Jeff VanderMeer recently co-edited Best American Fantasy 2. He lives in Tallahassee, Fla.