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VINE VOICEon September 8, 2003
Narrator George Cautley is an old man at the opening of this lush, dense story of 18th century London, King's first novel (written before his bestsellers, "Ex-Libris" and "Brunelleschi's Dome"). At a masquerade ball Cautley captures a young man's attention with the portrait miniature of a beautiful woman known as Lady Beauclair. Cautley offers to tell the boy his - and her - story, a tale of innocence and masquerade, deception, jealousy and corruption, that ends, Cautley says, with his becoming a murderer.
Cautley's narrative is actually two life histories, 50 years apart. His tale begins with his arrival in London in 1770 at age 17, and the second, Lady Beauclair's story of the operatic castrato Tristano, takes place 50 years earlier and is told to Cautley as Beauclair sits for her portrait. Yes, this becomes confusing, but the reader's disorientation is part of the fun, dovetailing playfully with King's themes of elusive identity, perception and deceptive appearance.
Cautley comes to London seeking his fortune as a portrait painter. The orphaned son of a country parson, he is earnest, naïve, clumsy, ambitious, and a bit of a prig. A potent combination. Taken by his rich friend Toppie to one of the masquerades so popular at the time, Cautley is relieved of what little money he has by a set of genial card sharps who gladly lend him more. His resulting insurmountable debt turns out to be his best luck, as the lender is none other than the man Cautley has been trying to meet, the famous portrait painter Sir Endymion Starker.
Later at the same party Cautley becomes disoriented by the numerous passageways, and is rescued by a glamorous costumed lady who bears a startling resemblance to a portrait he has just been admiring on the wall. Lady Beauclair invites Cautley to paint her portrait and hear the life story of the old man in the garden whose curious plight has caught Cautley's eye.
Beauclair's lodgings are in a decrepit, even dangerous part of town, but her rooms are elegant and her portrait costume most provocative. As her dress slips down her shoulder and the light from a single candle dances over her artfully painted face, she relates the sad, passionate story of the impoverished Italian boy who became one of the greatest singers in Italy in the 1720s. Cautley, entranced by Beauclair's aspect, ("the face that, as its vizard was removed, tallied in every point with my youthful standard of beauty") intimidated by her boldness, and in awe of her mystery, disregards some of the more doubtful elements of her allure.
Meanwhile, Cautley discharges his gambling debt to Starker, the great painter, by becoming his temporary apprentice. Starker has two studios - his big fashionable public address, where the rich come to have their portraits painted - and his secret, shabby bolt-hole where he keeps an angry mistress and paints his "true" art.
Beauclair takes Tristano toward his fate in the London opera houses, Cautley succumbs to a corrosive jealousy, and Starker reveals himself (in Cautley's judging eyes) to be a hypocrite in matters of love as well as art. Every straightforward drama and intrigue is draped and shadowed with mystery, illusion and doubt. Identities are obscured by costumes and masks, and motives are similarly cloaked. Much of the narrative takes place at the elaborate masquerades popular at the time (and 50 years earlier), where lords dressed like buxom serving maids or lusty soldiers and ladies wore the raiments of goddesses or shepherdesses. And those with real secrets wore dominos, the simple robe which hides form, figure and face.
King's writing is painterly. Paragraphs hurtle through teeming crowds and elaborate costumes and extravagant decadence as he immerses the reader in the period. There's fascinating detail on the lives of the castrati, the rigid demarcations of class, and attitudes toward art, music and morality, public and private. Hypocrisy and deception abound.
Though beautifully written, with an intriguing, suspenseful plot and vivid historical detail, the novel has a few minor plot flaws (why, for instance, would a prominent and wealthy painter bother fleecing an impoverished country bumpkin?) and a larger character flaw. Cautley, the naïf who becomes corrupted by his doubts, is not that likable to begin with and he diminishes through experience. Lady Beauclair is fascinating but ultimately unknowable and Tristano, barely glimpsed in the flesh, is more pawn than power. In other words, there are no heroes in King's elusive and colorful world. But it's a fascinating, evocative world and King's prose is pure pleasure.
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on May 8, 2004
This novel is rich with historical and period detail and many of the passages in the book are beautifully written. There are also some very funny scenes throughtout. Yet it is a difficult story to follow and many aspects of it are just implausible. It really lacks a plot and never solves the mystery. If you love historical fiction then this book might hold your interest, but much of the book just does not make sense.
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on March 16, 2006
I really wanted to like this book. I am a great fan of historical fiction and have enjoyed some of Ross King's later books, particularly "Michaelangelo and The Pope's Ceiling". I struggled through to the middle of "Domino" before I finally gave up on it, deciding that there are too many other good books to waste anymore time on this one.

The major flaw in "Domino" is that there is not a single likeable character in the story. Neither is there someone despicable enough to hold the reader's attention. In this, his first book, Ross King doesn't give the reader any reason to care about the fate of the characters. The supposed mystery is a Domino itself - a trumped up, unimportant story masquerading as a fascinating life story that is not even interesting.

I recommend that if you like Ross King, read his later books. He seems to have developed a lot after this one.
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VINE VOICEon February 3, 2003
In the 1770s, Geoge Cautley moved from the British countryside to find his fortune as an artist in London. George held firmly to the belief that appearances are everything, that one need not dig deeply to discover the true nature of one's friends and acquaitances, of events and occurences. George, in recounting his story years later, admits, in so many words, that he was dead wrong. Geoge's story is an amusing, engaging, complicated tale. The London he inhabits, with it's ridiculous wig and dress codes, is quite entertaining . He befriends Lady Beauclair, a woman who regales him with the story of Tristano, a man whose fortunes ultimately become entangled with George's. George, in recounting his story, certainly weaves a tangled web, but it is a fun web to unravel. Enjoy.
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on January 18, 2003
Almost seventy and needing a walking stick to stay erect, artist George Cautley finds the attention of the eighteen year old boy he dubs Ganymede quite interesting even when the lad is more astonished at the portrait of Lady Beauclair. George tells the lad that the beauty was also dubbed "monstrous crime". Ganymede needs to hear her story so an amused George agrees to tell all he knows about the lovely lady he painted several decades ago.
George explains that his fortune dramatically improved when he painted a portrait of sophisticated Lady Beauclair, who remits payment by telling him the tragic story of Tristano, who performed years earlier as a member of the Handel Opera Company. As Cautley meets others through his acquaintance with Lady Beauclair, he hears their stories. As he learns about the secret world of the Milan opera houses, George realizes that he might be the modern Tristano as his life begins to parallel that of the singer.
Fans of eighteenth century European historicals will fully relish the depth of detail provided by Ross King in DOMINO. The plot loosely ties together the stories narrated by several characters while providing strong look at high society following the "South Sea Bubble" financial scandal that destroyed many fortunes. Though quite revealing of a world filled with duplicity and well written the over packed story line feels at times like standing room only at a Milan opera house or sardines in a can as there is no breathing room. Still sub-genre fans will appreciate this powerful period piece that makes the latter half of the eighteenth century come vividly alive.
Harriet Klausner
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on December 29, 2013
I'd read "The Judgment of Paris" a work of non-fiction set in mid 19th visual arts scene of Paris, by Ross King and unreservedly loved it. Yet Domino was so tortured in its language, presumably an attempt to recreate the cadence of 18th English, I couldn't complete it. I had no empathy or interest in its characters either.
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on November 22, 2008
Lushly written by a writer who has clearly done their research. The descriptive passages rival those of Suskind's PERFUME, and the story is beautifully structured, the character's well drawn. So why, then, didn't I like this book more? I suspect it might be a question of pacing. I found it a little ponderous, at times more concerned with displaying its own knowledge than telling the story. Still, for fans of the period, I can easily recommend it.
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on June 2, 2010
Halfway through Domino I was seriously beginning to wonder whether the author was visually impaired, not a native speaker of English, or both. Even allowing for the strain of writing in a pastiche of eighteenth-century English, the language is just odd - is there any native English-speaker who doesn't feel the word "waggle" to be inherently silly? It is used here in passages of high drama. And the "evocative descriptions of the sights, sounds, smells and society of eighteenth-century London" which are promised on the back cover, and do indeed fill the book, persistently give the impression that the author had never seen the things he is describing - very odd in a novel about a painter! It's not only the descriptions of historical details that are out of kilter (surely anyone who has ever looked at Hogarth's pictures of London low-life would have noticed that the women don't wear buttoned blouses? - or that it would be impossible for them to "unbutton the tops of their petticoats" in the street to attract custom?) - everyday things are misdescribed in odd ways; as when the face of a character who chokes goes "the colour of Rhenish wine" - pale yellow - despite wearing thick heavy make-up.

The behaviour and manners of the characters is quite improbable for the period. A threadbare would-be painter could not possibly mix in society with a rich lord as a social equal, and could certainly not address or refer to him by a nickname. Nor would a fashionable portraitist demand that a stranger visiting him would dress up in the clothes of a wealthy lady client so he could go on painting her portrait - a life-size lay figure for that purpose was a basic piece of an artists equipment. And so on, and so forth. This might not matter if the characters and the story were interesting, but they aren't. I would call this book a failure on every level.
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VINE VOICEon June 25, 2012
Here is a multi-layered historical novel in which almost nothing is as it first seems. Indeed, the real mystery of this novel is how the author managed to keep everything and everybody straight. Artist George Cautley appears as a callow youth in London around 1774. 435 densely written pages later, he has aged fifty years and has learned the tale of an unfortunate Italian lad named Tristano. Torn from his poor village family, Tristano becomes a celebrated castrati, eventually turning up in England. Cautley learns this tale from a woman whose portrait he is engaged to paint. In the course of the series of sittings, Cautley becomes enamored of the woman, Lady Beauclair. She is a woman not above teasingly seducing the young man's emotions. He pursues her with great ardor through many adventures among the high and the low-born of London.

Of characters there are many; I venture to suggest most play multiple roles and seem to appear in all three separate narratives which weave and interweave throughout this book. Indeed, there is even the suggestion of a duel to the death between two alter egos. Ross's style is contemplative, deliberative to a fault, and in many parts of the novel, even turgid.

Withal, his undeniable craft will trap the patient reader who is willing to follow the convolutions of story and style as they twist and wind back on themselves, as did the myriad narrow paths and byways of London of that time.. Through strong writing, Ross creates a compelling, vibrant, turbulent and nasty world, a world of sensual and idle pleasure, and social gamesmanship. But thriller Domino is not. It's pace is leisurely and its structure is soft. It is a mysterious tome to be read and savored in dim and quiet periods over a lengthy time.
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on November 13, 2013
Excellent history background. Love Ross style and cultural baggage in all his books (i've purchased 6 all from Amazon)easy and enjoyable reading loaded with facts
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