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The Somnambulist

A book by Jonathan Barnes

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Leap Day Oddity

  • Feb 29, 2008
  • by
I started and finished this book on Leap Day 2008, a good day for such an odd tale. An opium-addled Charles Dickens, a Victorian Steven King, , the Somnambulist skirts the genres of period fiction and fantasy, but ends up reading like a Lemony Snicket satirical riff on the Cold War spy games of John Le Carre.

The book purports to be a first-person narrative of these events by an initially unnamed author, whose identification propels the narrative and events through the last third of the book,. While the revelation is well handled and certainly caught me by surprise, the denouement is too wildly implausible and unpleasantly executed to carry the promise of the setup. . .

. . . Which starts out as the Dickensian tale of a magician on the downslide of his career, and the mysterious mute sidekick who is known only by the name used as the book's title. Also an amateur detective who has had great success, the magician is persuaded by mysteriously foreboding characters to tackle a pair of murders.

From this start, readers feel right at home in the shadowy, foggy backstreets of late-19th Century London, enjoying the atmosphere and self-conscious irony ladled onto the story, until the narrator is announced, and the plot takes a turn for the worse.

Not to say this is a bad book; it passed the can't-quit test to keep me reading it straight through in one day. But at the end of the book, I'm not sure what I had, and I'm not sure the author (in his debut here) does either, but I'm fairly sure it is not nearly as witty or well-done as the author thinks.

It will be interesting to see which direction his follow up takes.

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More The Somnambulist reviews
review by . August 19, 2008
Jonathan Barnes has attempted here to write a novel that is both wittily self-aware and delightfully macabre. He only partially pulls it off. Like the film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" -- also about a somnambulist and also full of dark and twisted elements -- the narrator here is unreliable -- but teases the reader about his unreliability. In the end, the revelations that begin to make sense of the implausibly fantastic dimensions of his story sound a bit too contrived and too predictable. The …
review by . February 15, 2008
Admittedly, this is one of the most obscure novels I have read of late, lurking figures in a London filled with menace, a Victorian mystery rife with an eclectic cast of characters, from the highest to the lowest echelons of society. "It's as dangerous to believe in nothing as it is to believe in everything." Or so says Edward Moon, a conjurer who performs nightly at his Theatre of Marvels with his eight-foot, milk-quaffing assistant, the Somnambulist. Bored with routine, Moon craves another investigation …
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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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About this book


Starred Review. Set in Victorian London, this superb debut from British author Barnes raises the bar for historical thrillers, starting with its curious opening line: Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. A page-turner, it's full of peculiar characters, notably Edward Moon, a highly unorthodox detective, and Moon's bizarre sidekick, known only as the Somnambulist. Moon, a conjuror by profession whose act has fallen on hard times, has cracked some of the city's most notorious murders. Now, he's leading the investigation into a shadowy religious group aiming to overtake London and do away with its oppressive, bourgeois tendencies. Moon is a remarkable invention, a master of logic and harborer of all sorts of unnatural habits and mannerisms. The Somnambulist—a giant, milk-swigging mute—doesn't appear to be human at all, yet serves as Moon's moral as well as intellectual compass. Together, they wend their way through a London rich in period detail. Barnes saves his best surprise for the story's homestretch, when he reveals the identity of his narrator, who's been cleverly pulling strings since the opening.(Feb.)
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ISBN-10: 0061375381
ISBN-13: 978-0061375385
Author: Jonathan Barnes
Publisher: William Morrow

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