Book Review 2009 #5: The Domino Men

A book I received under the auspices of Amazon Vine, The Domino Men is a fantasy/horror novel by Jonathan Barnes.


There have been a spate of what some have labeled “The New Weird” in fantasy and horror in the last few years. Authors like Jeff Vandermeer, China Mieville, and M John Harrison are the major figures in this movement, but this movement has influenced new authors, too.
Jonathan Barnes’ work seems to fall into this bracket. The Domino Men is a novel set in the same world of his previous novel, The Somnambulist. The story ostensibly is the story of Henry Lamb, hapless file clerk (and former child TV star) in London who slowly is wrapped in the tendrils of an ancient conflict that involves his grandfather, the House of Windsor, and the fate of Earth.
The world is not quite the one we know, since the Crown Prince is named Arthur, and only has had one wife, without a single child.
And then there is the titular Domino Men, Hawker and Boon. They cut a swath of sadism and darkness in the novel that really is at an angle to the rest of the action. While they are important, they aren’t central to the narrative.
And what a narrative? A Dark faustian bargain which “The Directorate” has been fighting for a century. Over the top hilarity is cheek and jowl with darkness and denigration. This jarring tone is carried throughout the novel and it gave me as a reader continual emotional whiplash.
The novel started off well enough, but as the novel progressed, I became dissatisfied with it. Lamb, like his name, is far, far too passive for a protagonist. He doesn’t question his orders and is pushed around the chessboard like a hapless pawn. I couldn’t identify with him, and only could pity him. In addition, midway through the novel, the first person past narrative was punctuated by a different first person narrator who shows us Arthur’s perspective. While it becomes clear in the end why we should be privy to this narrative, I didn’t feel it fit all that well with Lamb’s story.
Finally, the ending ended my chances of walking away from the novel satisfied. Characters are brutally tortured and go through hell while London suffers cataclysmic upheaval.
Even for fans of the New Weird, there are far better and more rewarding novels than this one in that vein. It’s not a terrible novel, but it could have been much better than it was executed.