Jonathan Barnes’ 2007 debut novel, The Somnambulist, crammed dozens of outlandish characters into a Victorian-era conspiracy plot, then added a touch of postmodern tomfoolery when the story’s narrator unexpectedly revealed himself as a major character. The semi-sequel The Domino Men moves into the present day—or at least Barnes’ version of the present day—and is less audacious in its universe-building than The Somnabulist, though it still plays some tricks with the storytelling. For its first hundred pages or so, Domino Men is told from the perspective of Henry Lamb, a former child actor turned London file clerk, who learns that his esteemed thespian grandfather—now coma-bound—is an agent of a covert organization known as The Directorate. Then, a third of the way through the book, an alternate narrator arrives, openly contemptuous of Henry, telling the inside story of Prince Arthur of The House Of Windsor, and the royal family’s centuries-old involvement in a plot to loose Leviathan upon the world.
The secondary-narrator gambit is more distraction than boon until The Domino Men’s final pages, when the reason for the alternate voice (and the nature of Leviathan) gets revealed. And though Henry Lamb is a more down-to-earth protagonist than the magician/master detective/sexual deviant Edward Moon in The Somnambulist, he’s so ordinary that he can be a little dull.
Nevertheless, The Domino Men is marvelously imaginative, conveying a vision of a London governed by competing visions of bureaucratic order, in which the citizens are steamrolled by what the government does in their names. Plus, Barnes has two terrific villains in the title characters—holdovers from The Somnambulist—who dress in schoolboy outfits and sow the seeds of anarchy everywhere they go, merely by preying on other people’s self-doubt. Barnes has been compared to Douglas Adams because of the way he comically exaggerates a universal mania for order, but Barnes has a much darker take on the human condition: His heroes are tainted, and his villains sound reasonable.