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The Somnambulist

A book by Jonathan Barnes

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Intriguing beginnings, interesting cast of characters, but after a while I felt I was plodding through in my sleep

  • Aug 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 gory details and the grotesque and freakish elements also begin to sound a bit too over the top. Every bad guy is corpulent or malformed or carries some perverse secret -- and of course the whole evil genius plot is to make the world a paradise where such strange characters can be embraced and accepted rather than seen as deviations. I guess I've seen that all before -- in authors like Neil Gaiman or China Mieville or Alan Moore, all of whom Jonathan Barnes seems to be channelling here. The most intriguing characters are not so much explained as given strange obsessions that seem to put them beyond ordinary explanation -- one has a fetish for "freaks", the other is an obsessive milk drinker. The book really does feel as though it might be stronger as a graphic novel -- where suggestive sketches can work, where it is okay to leave a good deal to the imagination because the appearances are drawn -- something analogous to "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." As it stands, after about halfway I contemplated putting it down and then forced my way through to an only partially satisfying finish. I don't think I'm any better off for having stuck with it -- and I can imagine other things that would have more enjoyably passed the time. Someone else, with different tastes, might disagree -- but I have to say this was not my cup of tea.

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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 . 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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Nathan Andersen ()
Ranked #68
I teach philosophy at Eckerd College, in Saint Petersburg, Florida.      I run an award-winning International Cinema series in Tampa Bay (www.eckerd.edu/ic), and am co-director of … 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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ISBN-10: 0061375381
ISBN-13: 978-0061375385
Author: Jonathan Barnes
Publisher: William Morrow

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