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The Somnambulist

A book by Jonathan Barnes

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(3.5 stars) "Through it all the old man sleeps beneath the city."

  • Feb 15, 2008
  • by
Rating:
+3
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 in which to sink his teeth. Magic is one thing, but Moon is also an exceptionally talented investigator. Upon the death of Cyril Honeyman, who falls from an impossible height from a window opened from the outside, Moon embarks upon a case that leads from one dark corner of Machiavellian inspiration to another, plots inside plots, secrets within secrets and societies of the arcane, the bizarre and the plutocracy.

Narrated by a man who never gives his name or his association, the plot unravels in bits and pieces, people approaching Moon with information that suggests far more is at stake than the plunging death of one man, two men, a plot so devious as to belie logic, begun with the poet Coleridge and his grand dreams of a utopian society, distorted over time by opiate dreams and the greed of a chosen few. As astute as any contemporary, Moon is accompanied by the ever silent Somnambulist, who also remains nameless, scribbling his remarks on a chalkboard to emphasize his concern over rapidly changing events. From the mysterious deaths of the two young men, Moon moves in strange circles, to a brothel that offers nature's aberrations, a dank cell in Newgate and a grotesquely tattooed fiend, or a medium who calls the dead for discourse with the living.

The book jacket promises some literary legerdemain, but if so, it is an esoteric thread that I fail to appreciate for all the author's cleverness. In a plot shrouded with purposeful obfuscation, the various factions are often unclear as they bump into one another in their evil pursuits, a series of characters dressed in robes of pomposity, mystery, absurdity and physical anomaly: "Some vanished. Some became rich. And some went mad." That said, Edward Moon trudges through the warrens of confusion, his nose, like a bloodhound, sniffing out a monstrous plan to destroy London in all its 19th century glory. Peppered with some of the strangest creatures to walk (or crawl) the city, Barnes has created a virtual house of horrors in a top hat, the stench of Newgate rising to fill the vaulted boardrooms of the powerful. The purpose and fate of the Somnambulist, you ask? That is for the reader to decide. Luan Gaines/ 2008.

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More The Somnambulist reviews
review by . February 29, 2008
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 …
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 …
About the reviewer
Luan Gaines ()
Ranked #109
An artist/writer, I have traveled the world, walked on the moon and learned the complicated language of humanity, the enormity of the universe... all through the written word. My first passport was a … more
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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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Details

ISBN-10: 0061375381
ISBN-13: 978-0061375385
Author: Jonathan Barnes
Publisher: William Morrow

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