Jonathan Barnes made a pretty big stir with his debut novel, a steampunky mystery of deduction, horror and a threat to London.
But there's a far worse threat to England's capital in the sequel, "The Domino Men." Barnes switches over to the current day events (with a little strategic name-shuffling) in an increasingly creepy plot, full of monstrous interlopers, Faustian pacts, and an ordinary man caught in the middle of chaos.
When his grandfather has a stroke, Henry Lamb finds himself drafted into the Directorate in granddad's place -- a tiny, powerful group ruled by an ancient man in an amniotic tank.
They reveal that there has been a silent civil war in Great Britain since 1857, and that the key to winning that war (and saving London) is a mysterious woman named Estella. When his grandfather's house is firebombed (along with Estella's whereabouts), the Directorate takes drastic steps: they send Lamb to meet the Domino Men, a pair of gleefully psychotic twins with superhuman powers.
The war comes to a head as the Directorate's presence disrupts everything Henry knows and loves, and unleashes the Domino Men on London. But even that might not be enough to stop the horror that is coming -- and Henry Lamb may be made the unwilling sacrifice that can stop it.
And throughout the story, Lamb's frantic narrative is usurped by another presence, which tells the story of the spoiled, fusty Prince Arthur Windsor (read: Prince Charles, complete with a suitably glamorous "Laetitia"). A malevolent man named Streator tells him of the horrific pact Queen Victoria made with an otherworldly monstrosity named "Leviathan"... and Prince Arthur discovers just how terrifying it is.
Jonathan Barnes has a special talent for the unspeakably creepy -- Faustian pacts, a gilled relic in a tank on a ferris wheel, concentrated-essence pills, a trio of immortal lawyers, and a pair of unspeakably creepy, demonic men who take naughty-schoolboy pleasure in destruction.
And rather than the steampunk-tinged horror-mystery of his previous novel, this time he goes into a sort of spy thriller with a slow, creeping sense of dread. It almost devolves into silliness when "the secret" is revealed to be a war against the evil House of Windsor (which Henry refuses to divulge), but the slow revelation of the monstrous evil coming to London is even more effective.
It's a bit distracting that Barnes keeps veering off into Henry's rather pitiful love life and his longing for his sexy landlady. Fortunately these are only spots of sentimentality against a tide of the eerie and bizarre, which climaxes in an explosion of Lovecraftian horror.
I have to say, Lamb doesn't do much for me as a protagonist -- he seems somehow rather weak and shapeless, although that seems to be Barnes' intention. And Barnes pulls a few characters from his prior novel -- the aged Dedlock of the Directorate, and the ghastly twins who have no inhibitions about destroying everything and everyone for a chuckle.
"The Domino Men" is a suitable horrific sequel to Jonathan Barnes' memorable debut, and leaves the door open for more stories about the Directorate. Eerie, ghastly and morbidly amusing.