Monday, March 16, 2009

Ashes, ashes, all fall down!

The Domino Men
by Jonathan Barnes

London is engaged in a secret civil war. It's been raging for more than a century between the people of London and their rulers, the Windsor family. Okay, it's not really "the people," it's a shady group called "the Directorate" fighting on their behalf. And, yeah, the royals don't really rule anyone today, but you get my point. The Windsor's have sold the city's soul to an inhuman entity called Leviathan, and we are warned: He is coming.

Conscripted into this secret war is our protagonist, the aptly named Henry Lamb. Henry is a file clerk at the Civil Service Archive Unit. Shortly after his grandfather falls into a sudden coma, strange things begin to happen in Henry's life--such as his work transfer to the Directorate and his new (and very welcome) relationship with his landlady. Slowly at first, but eventually with greater and greater understanding, Henry comes to realize that everything he knows about the world and even about himself is now called into doubt. It is all much stranger and scarier than he previously believed.

Henry is writing his story for posterity from some point in the future. Right from the opening, Henry tells us that "time is now very short for me." About 100 pages in, suddenly the text becomes italicized, and a new narrator is telling a concurrent story. That is the story of the heir to the British throne, Prince Arthur Windsor. Arthur has his faults and weaknesses, and is being preyed upon by the mysterious Mr.Streater--a character with dialog so distinctive that I could literally hear his voice in my head. Arthur and Henry's stories fight for prominence through the rest of the novel, the struggle itself supposedly an indicator of Henry's eventual fate.

The Domino Men is rife with foreshadowing, but Jonathan Barnes has done a masterful job with the novel's construction. As I read, realizations would come to me--I am sure--exactly when Barnes intended for each epiphany to happen. Suddenly the light-bulb would snap on and I'd understand something important. And time and time again I'd flip back in the book to see all the exactingly placed clues. They were all there. Sometimes when I finally "got it" everything would be so right and so obvious, but all revelations came in their own time. Aside from the well-timed epiphanies, there were more than a few twists that managed to take me completely by surprise. By the end, I was extremely satisfied with all the major questions having been wrapped up, while still leaving a bit of room for a sequel--though I really don't believe that one is necessary.

On the subject of sequels, I had absolutely no clue The Domino Men was a sequel to The Somnambulist. I remembered being interested in reading The Somnambulist when it was first released, but I never got around to it. (I definitely will now.) The Domino Men was so deftly plotted however, that if I missed anything important by not reading the first book (set more than a century prior), it's not at all obvious to me.

The book is well-written, in a distinctly British style. The vocabulary alone is a joy to read, and though some turn their noses down at genre fiction, the use of language here is quite wonderful. Many times I paused to linger over a turn of phrase or sentence. There is a lot of humor that buoys the story as well. My biggest criticism, and the reason for the loss of one star, is that I believe that the novel could have been shorter. It dragged a bit in the middle and through the end. I'd find myself very caught up in what certainly felt like a dénouement, and I'd find myself thinking, "There's another 150 pages? No, not possible!" The book was never boring, but I do think it could have been slightly condensed.

I'm extremely grateful to have discovered this young author at this time. I am very much looking forward to now reading the first part of this tale, and will likewise be very interested in seeing where Mr. Barnes goes next. This novel is highly recommended for fans of Neil Gaiman and other writers of contemporary fantasy.

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