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The Somnambulist

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Once the toast of good society in Victoria's England, the extraordinary conjurer Edward Moon no longer commands the respect that he did in earlier times. Still, each night he returns to the stage of his theater to amaze his devoted, albeit dwindling, audience, aided by his partner, the Somnambulist—a silent, hairless, hulking giant who, when stabbed, does not bleed. But th Once the toast of good society in Victoria's England, the extraordinary conjurer Edward Moon no longer commands the respect that he did in earlier times. Still, each night he returns to the stage of his theater to amaze his devoted, albeit dwindling, audience, aided by his partner, the Somnambulist—a silent, hairless, hulking giant who, when stabbed, does not bleed. But these are strange, strange times in England, with the oddest of sorts prowling London's dank underbelly. And the very bizarre death of a disreputable actor has compelled a baffled police constabulary to turn once again to Edward Moon for help—inevitably setting in motion events that will shatter his increasingly tenuous grasp on reality.


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Once the toast of good society in Victoria's England, the extraordinary conjurer Edward Moon no longer commands the respect that he did in earlier times. Still, each night he returns to the stage of his theater to amaze his devoted, albeit dwindling, audience, aided by his partner, the Somnambulist—a silent, hairless, hulking giant who, when stabbed, does not bleed. But th Once the toast of good society in Victoria's England, the extraordinary conjurer Edward Moon no longer commands the respect that he did in earlier times. Still, each night he returns to the stage of his theater to amaze his devoted, albeit dwindling, audience, aided by his partner, the Somnambulist—a silent, hairless, hulking giant who, when stabbed, does not bleed. But these are strange, strange times in England, with the oddest of sorts prowling London's dank underbelly. And the very bizarre death of a disreputable actor has compelled a baffled police constabulary to turn once again to Edward Moon for help—inevitably setting in motion events that will shatter his increasingly tenuous grasp on reality.

30 review for The Somnambulist

  1. 4 out of 5

    Peggy

    I’ve been a reader all my life. I majored in English in college and grad school, and I’ve worked in bookstores since 1992, most of that as a buyer. I’m surrounded by books at home and work and I see new ones every day. It’s sometimes difficult to quantify why certain books speak to us; why we pick up this book, but not that one. Other times, it’s not difficult at all: Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvi I’ve been a reader all my life. I majored in English in college and grad school, and I’ve worked in bookstores since 1992, most of that as a buyer. I’m surrounded by books at home and work and I see new ones every day. It’s sometimes difficult to quantify why certain books speak to us; why we pick up this book, but not that one. Other times, it’s not difficult at all: Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you’ll believe a word of it. I don’t know about you, but I’m in love. With an opening like that, how can I not climb on board for the ride? Sure, I understand that this kind of narrator turns some people off (well, I know that; I don’t really understand it). But for me, it’s the sign of an author who wants to play--who wants me as the reader to take a more active role in the story, and I love that. It’s both clever and witty (and neatly kneecaps disgruntled reviewers: I told you it was implausible people, so no complaints!) and nicely sets the tone for the tale to come. The story itself is everything the narrator promises (with the exception of pedestrian prose—I really liked the writing). You’ve got Edward Moon, stage magician and detective, and his silent partner in both endeavors, the Somnambulist, a giant of a man who never speaks and holds many secrets. You’ve got warm-hearted housekeepers, sybaritic layabouts, spiritualists, gung-ho police inspectors, and freakshow prostitutes. You’ve got grizzly murders, mysterious disappearances, secret societies, shadowy government organizations, the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the shadow of past mistakes. It’s a generous, sprawling, maddeningly convoluted story. I just finished it, and I’m still not sure exactly what happened. I can’t wait to read it again and find out, though.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    A couple of rip-off Croup and Vandemar wannabes and the mention (i refuse to say allusion, because that would imply that it somehow honors or preserves the integrity of the original) of Samuel Taylor Coolridge doth not a similarity to Neil Gaiman make. The preposterous suggestion that this book was "a fantastic journey in the spirit of Neverwhere" duped me into buying this block of bound-together toilet tissue. I finished it out of a combination of devastating idleness (I was job-searching at th A couple of rip-off Croup and Vandemar wannabes and the mention (i refuse to say allusion, because that would imply that it somehow honors or preserves the integrity of the original) of Samuel Taylor Coolridge doth not a similarity to Neil Gaiman make. The preposterous suggestion that this book was "a fantastic journey in the spirit of Neverwhere" duped me into buying this block of bound-together toilet tissue. I finished it out of a combination of devastating idleness (I was job-searching at the time) and total disbelief. How could anyone, even a publicist, sleep at night after comparing Barnes and Gaiman? Egads, that's like comparing Janis Joplin's Take Another Little Piece of My Heart with Faith Hill's cover. No, worse; at least Hill and Joplin are both singing. I've said some nasty things about certain books lately. The Time Traveller's Wife, Heavy Liquid, You Suck, and even The Meaning of Night, I apologize to all of you. Remembering the dreadful experience of reading this book, I realize that I should have been grateful for your mere badness. The Somnambulist was, as the title implies, dull, and the Coolridge cameo supports my hope that the author was just writing through a crippling drug haze. It was also dazzlingly incoherent, without point, theme, motivation, or explanation. Not only is there no reason for any of the book's many silly twists and turns, there's no excuse for them. If the London Barnes sketches had been in any way convincing, if his characters were at all fleshed out, if his narrative devices were not missing a few parts, the plot of this book would still be extraordinarily stupid. Sarah Palin could give the author lessons in sentence construction. The book didn't rightfully even have a protagonist, although, somewhat pitifully, it tried to-- every single nominee from the job was flat and unsympathetic. Perhaps that's why it took me so long to review this excreable hack-job; my attention slid right off it like water from a duck's back. I didn't even think about it long enough to hate it until I bought Neil Gaiman's latest book, and recalled the taking of his name in vain.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sandi

    I really don't know what to make of this book. It was mostly weird and didn't make a whole lot of sense. Yet, the plot was fairly simple. The characters never really developed and some of the weirdest were never explained, like the guy who claimed to be living life backwards from the future to the past. We never find out who or what the Somnambulist is. He never lives up to his potential as a character. Characters appear out of nowhere late in the story and really don't have much of anything to I really don't know what to make of this book. It was mostly weird and didn't make a whole lot of sense. Yet, the plot was fairly simple. The characters never really developed and some of the weirdest were never explained, like the guy who claimed to be living life backwards from the future to the past. We never find out who or what the Somnambulist is. He never lives up to his potential as a character. Characters appear out of nowhere late in the story and really don't have much of anything to do with the main plot. Halfway through, you figure out who's sleeping underground, so it's no big surprise when he wakes up. It was a quick read and well paced, but there just wasn't much substance to it. It was trying to hard to be clever. I gave it three stars only because it did have some interesting aspects. I just felt kind of lukewarm about it.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jason Pettus

    (Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.) Regular readers know that I am a big fan of the unique subgenre known as "steampunk," but might not know what exactly steampunk is; and similarly, regular readers also know that one of the issues often tackled here at CCLaP is the difference between so-called "genre" projects and so-called "mainstream (Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.) Regular readers know that I am a big fan of the unique subgenre known as "steampunk," but might not know what exactly steampunk is; and similarly, regular readers also know that one of the issues often tackled here at CCLaP is the difference between so-called "genre" projects and so-called "mainstream" ones, but might not know what those differences are or why they matter. And since today's book under review brings up these topics yet again, I thought I would use it as an excuse to talk about them in greater detail, along with telling you about the book itself; because the book under question, see, is the inventive steampunk tale The Somnambulist, the high-profile debut novel of Times Literary Supplement critic Jonathan Barnes, a book destined to make you either squeal with Victorian fanboy delight or shudder with non-fan disgust. It's a great example of why genre novels are loved by fans of that genre and hated by everyone else, and why it can sometimes be so difficult as an "objective" critic to review such projects in the first place. So what exactly is steampunk, to not put too fine a point on it? Well, it was originally an outgrowth of the "cyberpunk" movement in science-fiction in the 1980s, which is how it got its name; novels and stories and comics that were being written by these same cyberpunk authors and dealing with the same complex modern issues, but couched in the visual sumptuousness and rigid morality of the Victorian Age, which for practical purposes you can think of as roughly 1840 to 1900. And indeed, it is not too much of a stretch at all to reimagine current tech and ethical issues through the filter of that era; it was the height of the Industrial Age as well, after all, the era that saw the profession of science first come into its own, a half-century of human history that arguably saw as much rapid technological progress as we're seeing in our own times. In a world where dozens of things formerly thought of as magic were actually getting invented, standardized and ready for retail sales, of course it would make sense to set a semi-fantastical, semi-magical tale within such an environment; now imagine the exquisite detail and luxurious materials that went into such Victorian-Age contraptions, all that brass and wood and ivory and the like, and you can easily see why a contemporary author might want to set a modern-style tale in those years instead of our own. And in fact Barnes' book teeters right on the edge of fantastical the entire time, a novel which could be argued is actually more magical realism than science-fiction; London at the turn of the 20th century, yes, but a London with secret magical archives in the basement of the British Library, a London with secret police departments guarding millennia-old mysteries from becoming public knowledge. It's within such a place that we meet the book's two main characters: a past-his-prime stage magician named Edward Moon who doubles as a notorious Holmes-style private investigator (in fact, Arthur Conan Doyle exists in The Somnambulist's London too, and is considered an untalented hack by our book's hero); and the eponymous "Somnambulist" in question, a hideous eight-foot-tall mute with no body hair, Moon's on-stage assistant and the focus of his most famous trick, able to be stabbed repeatedly with swords without ever being hurt, who refuses to drink anything else in his life but milk and of that 15 to 20 pints a day. And of course it's this that gets us into one of the first big differences between genre work and so-called mainstream literature (or movies, or whatever); a genre project is full of whimsical little details that cater to that specific genre only, that will be loved by fans of that genre but despised by most others. Because let's face it, unless you naturally enjoy dainty little complicated half-magical whimsical elements in your adventure fiction, you are bound to go a little crazy trying to read The Somnambulist, and very quickly into the manuscript too; this is a book, after all, that features a whorehouse catering to circus-freak fetishes, a gentlemen's lounge for hideously disfigured war veterans, cadavers brought back to life Frankenstein-style, and a subterranean spy agency hidden in the back of an East End opium den, among lots of other details that have you either laughing or groaning even before you've finished this sentence. All genres have their little details that cater just to those who love the genre, which is why they're called genres in the first place -- crime fans have their brilliant serial killers, western fans have their stoic cowboys, and steampunk fans have their disfigured mad-scientist supervillains in tophats and overcoats. You either accept these details or you don't, which means you simply either accept such books as entertaining or you simply don't; that's a big sign of a project being a mainstream versus genre one, if its enjoyment does or doesn't rest solely on the details of a specific type of literature. Because that's the other thing about The Somnambulist, that the storyline itself is very much a fast-paced, plot-heavy one, which brings me to about the biggest complaint I have; that many parts of the novel feel like Barnes imagining how the eventual big-budget Hollywood adaptation of that scene will look, instead of the scene directly servicing the storyline itself. And this again is a big difference between so-called genre projects and mainstream ones, that genre projects almost always concentrate more on painting striking mental images in their readers' heads, almost always favor plot more heavily than character since it's the details of a plot that most defines what type of genre it is. Because make no mistake, if you're a fan of steampunk, The Somnambulist is going to give you a boner; it's 350 pages of hansom-cab chases and obscure clues found on ancient gravestones, a giant conspiracy tale that of course features a famous poet from the 1700s, of course features a pagan society leaving little signs of itself all over the city, of course features grandiose evil lairs buried within the labyrinthine tunnels of London's tube system! Whew, oh, excuse me, I think I need to visit the bathroom for a few minutes! Now, I'm quite aware that the above paragraph has a certain amount of you shaking your heads and rolling your eyes even as we speak, which of course is another sign of something being a genre project; it's the same reaction I have, for example, when someone says to me, "See, he solves crimes, but he's a phobia-obsessed recluse! Hah? Hah? Isn't that interesting?" Well, no, not to me, because I'm not a particularly big fan of crime fiction, just as others don't care for steampunk, romance, historical thrillers, or all those other shelf labels at your favorite corporate superstore. It doesn't mean they're necessarily bad books, which is where the difficulty lies for me as a critic; because how exactly do you describe a book that's great, but only great to that small segment of the population who naturally loves that genre in the first place? It's always the balance I'm trying to strike here, given that CCLaP concentrates on a higher percentage of genre novels than many other lit-oriented publications. I guess, then, I'll say what I always say about such books; that steampunk fans are sure to love it, others not so much, that it's definitely worth taking a chance on if you're feeling adventurous, but ultimately you're not missing all that much if you're not. That's the ultimate beauty and curse of genre fiction, after all, is that when all is said and done, the projects tend to bleed into each other a lot in our collective memories; it's why genre books receive so much scorn from the general populace and so few awards, despite such books comprising the vast majority of ones published, bought and read in this country. The Somnambulist is very much like that, a book that's definitely enjoyable but that you will likely get mixed up with other steampunk books years later when recalling; that's not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly something you deserve to know before going into it. Out of 10: Story: 9.0 Characters: 7.2 Style: 8.4 Overall: 8.0, or 9.0 for steampunk fans

  5. 4 out of 5

    Brad

    I should never read the plaudits plastered on the cover of a book, nor those that litter the first few pages. I am invariably annoyed by what I find and occasionally even led astray. Luckily with John Barnes’ The Somnambulist, I was mostly faced with the former brand of upset. According to the book company, Barnes’ style is a mix of Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Susannah Clarke and a little bit of Carl Hiassen. And maybe there is something to these comparisons, but mostly I think these names are laz I should never read the plaudits plastered on the cover of a book, nor those that litter the first few pages. I am invariably annoyed by what I find and occasionally even led astray. Luckily with John Barnes’ The Somnambulist, I was mostly faced with the former brand of upset. According to the book company, Barnes’ style is a mix of Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Susannah Clarke and a little bit of Carl Hiassen. And maybe there is something to these comparisons, but mostly I think these names are lazy choices of a marketing department, choices that will sell more books rather than giving the reader a clear view of what they’re in for. I saw a whole lot more of Tim Powers in Barnes’ writing than anyone else, and was pleasantly surprised because of that. I could just be lazy at this point and leave it at: “ I saw a whole lot more of Tim Powers in Barnes’ writing,” but I am sure someone would call me on it so here are the connections to Powers:1. Romantic Poets Make an Appearance: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or some semblance of him, takes part in Reverend Dr. Tan’s attempt to bring Pantisocracy to London with a bloody insurrection, and he’s joined by the left hand of Robert Southey, “several toes ... donated by Charles Lamb,” and some random organs from William Wordsworth. 2. Fantastical Magic and Unexplained Phenomenon:The Somnambulist is full of Powers-esque moments of craziness, from a nine foot giant who inexplicably survives multiple impalings and loves his milk, to a pair of Angus Young-like uber-assassins who enter the fray at the behest of a nasty Albino. There is no explaining it, but then who would want to? 3. Steampunk Sci-Fi and Victorianism: There’s a touch of Frankenstein in the animation of Coleridge, and then a whole pile of the usual trappings of Steampunk: pseudo-science, Victorian gadgets, cops, robbers, government conspiracies, and all things Tim Powers. There are underground societies, far-seers who are forced to flee for their lives, and a pair of Holmesian puzzle solvers, a sort of Victorian Penn and Teller, at the heart of the bizarre mystery. So you see, it owes more to Tim Powers than his comrades-in-pens. And thank Jabber for that.

  6. 5 out of 5

    colleen the convivial curmudgeon

    2 1/2 Overall my impression of this book was 'meh'. It wasn't great... it wasn't horrible. It was just sort of there... I had high hopes for this story, being a fan of stories set in Victoriana, of Poe's and Doyle's mysteries, and of the strange and outre - but I just couldn't find myself caring all that much about this story. For one thing I don't recall ever wondering, when I read those other mystery stories, how the detective of the story got the reputation for being so great. Edward Moon seeme 2 1/2 Overall my impression of this book was 'meh'. It wasn't great... it wasn't horrible. It was just sort of there... I had high hopes for this story, being a fan of stories set in Victoriana, of Poe's and Doyle's mysteries, and of the strange and outre - but I just couldn't find myself caring all that much about this story. For one thing I don't recall ever wondering, when I read those other mystery stories, how the detective of the story got the reputation for being so great. Edward Moon seemed rather useless, unable to deduct anything. He was constantly being given clues and lead by the nose in one direction of the other by various other characters - such as Cribb and The Fiend. He was constantly, and rather petulantly, demanding answers since he found none himself, and seemed rather unable to do anything about anything. I imagine, on some level, this was the point - since he was past his prime and all that. But, mostly, I just found it annoying. I rather enjoyed the voice of the narrator until we found out who it was. It wasn't because of who it was, but rather because he become so smug and annoying once it was announced... All of this was kind of mild, actually. It was annoying in a sort of passive way, but not enough to make me hate the book. The only thing that really stood out as annoying was the way the supernatural elements felt sort of forced and tacked on. As a point of reference, I quite like supernatural elements in stories and read, almost exclusively, fantasy and other speculative fictions... but it just didn't come naturally in this story, and that's why it stuck out so badly for me. Oddly enough I can't think of anything really good to say about the book, but I didn't hate it. I suppose part of the reason is because it's easier for me to critique than to praise... but also because nothing of note really stood out. Oh - I did like the Prefects. They were fun. :> Sad about their price, but also rather predictable, silly man. But ah well... One final note, which has less to do with the story itself and more to do with genre. I, personally, feel this book is more 'Gaslight Romance' which "focuses nostalgically on icons from the late years of that century and the early years of the 20th century—on Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and even Tarzan—and can normally be understood as combining supernatural fiction and recursive fantasy, though some gaslight romances can be read as fantasies of history" and less Steampunk. It doesn't really have any focus on the machines or science which, to me, is the essential requirement of Steampunk. It's a minor quibble and, as I said, not really relevant to the story itself - but may be important if you go in expecting something quite more Steampunkish than this is, and ending up disappointed...

  7. 5 out of 5

    Greg

    I think this book may be really worth five stars, and there was a moment about thirty pages to the end where I thought, this is a five star book. Something about the end though brought it back to a four. This is what escapist fiction should be. It's fun, it's interesting, the plot twists and keeps you guessing, and it's all done with a relative ease that doesn't make the even the most remarkable seem contrived. Sadly though most escapist (I mean non-serious literature, or fun books, or shall I s I think this book may be really worth five stars, and there was a moment about thirty pages to the end where I thought, this is a five star book. Something about the end though brought it back to a four. This is what escapist fiction should be. It's fun, it's interesting, the plot twists and keeps you guessing, and it's all done with a relative ease that doesn't make the even the most remarkable seem contrived. Sadly though most escapist (I mean non-serious literature, or fun books, or shall I say popular? I don't know what word would work best here without sounding too much like the snob that I really am, how about airport-ish books? Travel novels? I don't know), doesn't stand up to this kind of book. This is so much better than say the Dante Club, which was pretty good for the kind of book it was. I mean this all positively. Too many times when I find something really fun to read I have to overlook the awful prose, and just allow myself to get lost in the story with certain blinders on. This book though is a great story, great non-obtrusive writing, and with so many dips into the grotesque that it kept me turning the pages as fast as I could.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Juushika

    In Victorian London, aging magician and detective Edward Moon, accompanied by his assistant, a giant known only as the Somnambulist, are called in to investigate the most bizarre of murders. As Moon's investigation continues, he uncovers a plot against the statea plot which, after long preparation and much waiting, is now only days from being put into action. The Somnambulist is set in a world not quite like our own, colored by steampunk and fantasy and populated by a cast of bizarre, slightly i In Victorian London, aging magician and detective Edward Moon, accompanied by his assistant, a giant known only as the Somnambulist, are called in to investigate the most bizarre of murders. As Moon's investigation continues, he uncovers a plot against the state—a plot which, after long preparation and much waiting, is now only days from being put into action. The Somnambulist is set in a world not quite like our own, colored by steampunk and fantasy and populated by a cast of bizarre, slightly inhuman characters. Although it has a decisive conclusion, the plot often feels as confused as the setting. Barnes waits too long before he decides what he wants The Somnambulist to be, and with its busy and unfocused confusion and abrupt and strange conclusion, the novel fails its potential and remains entirely mediocre. Not recommended. The premise of The Somnambulist is particularly intriguing, largely because of its mystery. The little differences that separate the setting from our world, the inhuman traits and perceptions of some characters, the shrouded unknown of the plot: all of these aspects are perceived through a mist, intriguing the reader and urging him to delve into it that he may discover more. The book's failing is that for too long this mist is impenetrable, and when it finally parts what it reveals is downright bizarre. As Moon begins to suspect an underlying sinister plot against the state, the narrator compares his perception to a microscopic view of one strand of a spiderweb: he can see the details of his the fragment he sees, but cannot perceive the shape of the whole. So it is for the reader for the majority of the book, and this narrow view makes the events of the plot seem random and give the reader nothing identify and care about. To avoid spoiling the plot, I obviously can't talk about the final reveal, but without a shroud of mystery, the plot is just plain strange: a combination of random factors, some literary, some steampunk, some fantasy, some religious, the ending is bizarre to an extreme. It's not the sort of stangeness that broadens the reader's mind, but rather the sort that makes the reader wonder where Barnes got these ideas and why he decided to combine them in one story. The plot does have a decisive, even action-packed conclusion, but it is so strange that it's hard to appreciate. On the whole, due to decent writing and the ongoing mystery, the book is readable. Barnes's prose is likewise quite strange, filled with dry humor and delivered by a narrator that often speaks directly to the reader (and by breaking the fourth wall, destroys any attempt to suspend disbelief). However, the omniscient narrator drops hints about the slowly developing mystery, keeping the reader looking ahead to the next potential development. But even if the book is readable, it is not good. Aside from the flawed mystery and the bizarre plot are a dozen other weaknesses: The narrator's identity is a contrived and unconvincing plot twist. By dancing on the edges of steampunk and fantasy without embracing either, the steampunk influences appear amateur and the fantastic elements are unbelievable. The most promising characters disappear, the main characters are unlikable, and the titular character remains an unexplored sideplot. And so forth—the book is littered with faults. When I put down this book I was wondering why I ever picked it up in the first place. The premise is certainly intriguing, but it is the best that the book has to offer. Barnes's hovers on the edge of an interesting book, setting up the atmosphere and characters to support it, but hovers for too long and then only at the last moment delves into the strangest of novels. Don't let the concept of this book or its constant hints towards greatness pull you in, because the result is disappointing. The book is readable, but by the end it becomes a frustrating practice in mediocrity and unfulfilled potential. I would love to see a better novel built upon this same premise, but I do not recommend The Somnambulist.

  9. 4 out of 5

    La Fuente

    Ugh. Utter crap. The opening 100 pages or so a great, lots of intriguing characters, mysteries, supernatural goings-ons. But then, as the story progresses, it becomes more and more of a (if I may apply a literary term) clusterfuck. It's just a mess of idiocy, none of it particularly interesting. By the end, the main characters become lost in a crowd of Johnny-Come-Latelys that exert way too much influence over the story. And what do we call them, boys and girls? Deus ex machinas! That's right. A Ugh. Utter crap. The opening 100 pages or so a great, lots of intriguing characters, mysteries, supernatural goings-ons. But then, as the story progresses, it becomes more and more of a (if I may apply a literary term) clusterfuck. It's just a mess of idiocy, none of it particularly interesting. By the end, the main characters become lost in a crowd of Johnny-Come-Latelys that exert way too much influence over the story. And what do we call them, boys and girls? Deus ex machinas! That's right. And just because one of the characters admits to being just such a creative shortcut doesn't let the lazy author off the hook. An absolute waste of time.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Tara

    I dare you to read the first two pages and not want to finish the rest of the book. Part Victorian murder mystery, part fantastical alternate history with a liberal dash of lexigraphical acrobatics The Somnambulist combines a labyrinthine plot with haunting characters and an unreliable narrator which coalesces into an unexpected crescendo no one could anticipate. The Somnambulist is a bald, mute giant of man who when pierced with swords does not bleed. His almost constant companion is Edward Moon, I dare you to read the first two pages and not want to finish the rest of the book. Part Victorian murder mystery, part fantastical alternate history with a liberal dash of lexigraphical acrobatics The Somnambulist combines a labyrinthine plot with haunting characters and an unreliable narrator which coalesces into an unexpected crescendo no one could anticipate. The Somnambulist is a bald, mute giant of man who when pierced with swords does not bleed. His almost constant companion is Edward Moon, often referred to as the conjurer, with whom he conducts a magical act and solves the most mysterious of mysteries. When drawn into the enigmatic and horrifying deaths of two lechers, seemingly unconnected except for the implausible nature of their deaths, these crimes, however, and their monstrous solution are just the first strands in unraveling the gordian knot that is threatening the city of London. At times like taking a midnight stroll through densely fogged streets and hearing ominous footsteps behind you, or standing slack-jawed at a bawdy freak show, or laughing raucously at a local pub Jonathan Barnes' The Somnambulist is reminiscent of authors of such note as Mary Shelley, Neil Gaiman, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe and Michael Chabon. This books is essential for all you Word Nerds out there as I learned 11 new words during the course of the book! A solid 4 and a half, with its only caveat being that the end leaves you thinking "what the deuce?!"

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

    I read the reviews, all telling me that the book wasn't worth it and that I should not waste my time. I did not listen because I found the opening so beguiling that I did not know how a book could possibly end up being such a colassal failure--and I figured that, given the positive quotes on the back, it couldn't be ALL bad. Well, gentle reader, I am telling you now: the opening is more true than it wants to be. This book truly does NOT have any literary merit. Believe the reviews. As they did n I read the reviews, all telling me that the book wasn't worth it and that I should not waste my time. I did not listen because I found the opening so beguiling that I did not know how a book could possibly end up being such a colassal failure--and I figured that, given the positive quotes on the back, it couldn't be ALL bad. Well, gentle reader, I am telling you now: the opening is more true than it wants to be. This book truly does NOT have any literary merit. Believe the reviews. As they did not sway me, I shall try to sway you to the best of my ability. This review will contain spoilers, but believe me when I say that it is necessary for me to reveal them in order to explain how awful this book truly is. The first and biggest problem is that this book really has a lot of wonderful concepts and character ideas, but has no idea of how to use them. For example, one of the characters, Thomas Cribb, experiences his life backwards, will be a child in the future and was an old man in the past, and remembers things backwards as well. It's a splendid concept. It's a pity, then, that NOTHING OF ANY IMPORTANCE IS DONE WITH MR. CRIBB. He seems tacked on, as if Mr. Barnes had the idea and decided to incorporate it without first figuring out what he was going to do with it. Or take The Prefects, a pair of magical, indestructable serial killers who are old but wear schoolboy uniforms, and go on and on talking in the kind of British slang that got subtitled in that "she shat on a turtle!" scene from "Austin Powers: Goldmember." They're great. They're funny. They're--dare I say it--almost iconic. It's a pity, then, that THEY ONLY SHOW UP IN THE LAST QUARTER OF THE BOOK. I must also stress that NOTHING OF ANY IMPORTANCE IS DONE WITH THE PREFECTS. Or what of the Human Fly, a freakish thing we first see early on? Edward Moon, the book's primary protagonist, eventually realizes that he must track him down, but before any suspense can build, the Human Fly is dead. To kill a fascinating villain so early on was a ridiculous choice. Another potentially interesting character is Barabbas, who we get a little backstory about--though I'm sure it would have been much MORE interesting to actually SEE the events loosely described in the backstory unfold, rather than referencing them vaguely and expecting us to understand or care. And again, before ANYTHING of importance is done with Barabbas, he is killed--and his death serves no purpose either. Why, then, produce his character at all? And what of The Somnambulist himself? We are left with more questions than answers, I'm afraid. We are told that he either hates or fears Thomas Cribb, though we never find out why. At the end it is suggested that he may have been one of the giants of London, Gogg or Maggog, yet this, too, is left open. It is exceptionally disappointing how little this book does with its interesting characters. Meanwhile, we are also introduced to several thoroughly uninteresting characters that we have no reason to care about, and who also serve no purpose in the story, though we spend a lot of time with them. The second problem is that "The Somnambulist" quickly becomes...boring. The plot reaches a stand-still, with a long stretch in the middle where very little seems to happen. I felt like I was waiting for Moon to get off his ass and do some goddamned investigating. In the last third things started to finally pick up, but by then the plot had become so ridiculous, so unbelievable, and so poorly designed, that there was no thrill. Which brings us to problem number three. This book makes no sense. I realize it's intended to be a parody, but it's simply not funny enough to be effective as one, so we are left taking it almost seriously. In the final quarter of the book, the narrator reveals that he is, in fact, the villain of the book who has been behind everything, and did it all in order to bring Edward Moon into his clutches. Now, let's assume that it makes any sense for the villain to write this book about his nemesis tracking him down. I bought it--I thought it was an amusing idea, and by then I was so bored that I was happy for an injection of whackiness. But the problem is, it STILL doesn't make sense. Edward Moon walks right into the villain's building, even tries to go deeper down below. Does the villain take advantage of that fact? Nope. He waits for Moon to sneak in that night. Does the villain ever try to kidnap Moon before the scene that reveals that he's wanted Moon there from the start? Nope. The fourth problem is the repetition. There is repetition of language--characters keep sneering and yawning and careering. And there is repetition of plot--scenes are split into two or three repeat visits, when a single one would have done the job much more efficiently. Finally, the fifth problem is that, for all its self-deprecation, it simply isn't very funny, apart from the first few pages and the scenes with the Prefects. NOTHING is brought to its full potential here. Just as great characters are introduced but given no importance, the idea of this being a parody is also left in the dust. While I have a hard time saying the book starts to take itself seriously, it certainly does not seem sure of what it is doing. I'm sure that with more experience Jonathan Barnes may become a fine author. Little glimmers here and there show a unique voice, and he certainly does have grand ideas. I look forward to the day when he fully finds his voice, and discovers that grand ideas must be fully utilized in order to matter at all. I give this book 2 stars; one for the ideas, and one for the amusing first two chapters.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Rick

    Jonathan Barnes' brilliant debut novel, The Somnambulist, chronicles the late Victorian-era adventures of a legendary magician-cum-detective Edward Moon and his mute, hulking, hairless sidekick, known only as the Somnambulist. The two investigate a series of bizarre murders, meet a cadre of eccentrics, and involve themselves in several strange incidents that culminate in a plot to destroy and remake London. The unreliable, unnamed narrator, who frequently raves like a madman, issues a warning in Jonathan Barnes' brilliant debut novel, The Somnambulist, chronicles the late Victorian-era adventures of a legendary magician-cum-detective Edward Moon and his mute, hulking, hairless sidekick, known only as the Somnambulist. The two investigate a series of bizarre murders, meet a cadre of eccentrics, and involve themselves in several strange incidents that culminate in a plot to destroy and remake London. The unreliable, unnamed narrator, who frequently raves like a madman, issues a warning in the very first chapter: "This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and wilfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it." The preamble is true but for the "pedestrian prose." Barnes crafts one of the finest first novels of the young century, creating an exciting, memorable book peopled with cultists, prostitutes, circus freaks, the undead, albinos, poets, time travelers, assassins, Lovecraftian creatures, and almost every Victorian-type nefarious nasty conceived. The title figure offers an enigmatic yet sympathetic figure who communicates through (poorly spelled) words scribbled on a small chalkboard, does not bleed or feel pain, and displays an intense, inexplicable loyalty to Moon. Truly surprising plot twists and red herrings abound. Through character actions, scene descriptions, and the mention of a scant few historical facts, Barnes successfully conjures the period without divulging dates. Until the final act when the narrator cleverly reveals himself, the author presents one of the finest occult thrillers ever. After veering dangerously close to the absurd, the story ultimately concludes with a lyrically obtuse ending that creates confusion rather than clarity. Even with that flaw, the engaging ride of The Somnambulist offers enough thrills to distract from the ending. Or perhaps, just as Jonathan Barnes' narrator deceives in the narrative, this reviewer misdirects as well? Read The Somnambulist and decide for yourself. This review originally appeared in The Austin Chronicle, February 1, 2008.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Bev

    [Sits. Blinks. Shakes head.] Last night, at midnight (how appropriate), I completed the final scheduled book for the R.I.P. VII event--The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes. Now I need to write up a review. Um. Okay. [Blinks some more.] Yeah. It's one of those books. The kind where you finish and you just don't know what to say. The only thing that really occurs right off the bat is: Man, that was one weird little book. And I do mean weird. But I guess weird is good when you're working on a book f [Sits. Blinks. Shakes head.] Last night, at midnight (how appropriate), I completed the final scheduled book for the R.I.P. VII event--The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes. Now I need to write up a review. Um. Okay. [Blinks some more.] Yeah. It's one of those books. The kind where you finish and you just don't know what to say. The only thing that really occurs right off the bat is: Man, that was one weird little book. And I do mean weird. But I guess weird is good when you're working on a book for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril. Did I like it? I don't know. Yes and no. Maybe. I like the writing--Jonathan Barnes has a grasp of narration that pulls you from the very beginning: Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and wilfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it. Yet I cannot be held wholly accountable for its failings. I have good reason for presenting you with so sensational and unlikely an account. It is all true. Stop reading after that. Just try it. I couldn't....my eyes strayed down the page, eager to find out what came next. And even when I was confused beyond belief, I just couldn't stop. A writer that can induce that kind of compulsive reading in his audience has got something. Even when he has a detective that makes you wonder how he got such an impressive reputation. 'Cause impressive Edward Moon ain't. But let's take this from the top and see if I can make some sense out of things while I try to tell you about them. Edward Moon is an illusionist (for lack of a better word) of some sort. For years he had been the toast of Victorian society--amazing and confounding everyone up to and including minor royals. His act includes a giant of a man--the Somnambulist. A man who never speaks, whose face is impassive--even when stabbed repeatedly with sharp knives. And who never bleeds no matter where he's stabbed. But Moon's act never changes, and society has begun to search for other entertainments. To keep himself from boredom, Moon has involved himself in various criminal cases. We're given a laundry list of earlier crimes (a la Sherlock Holmes rattling off his unpublished cases) and meant to believe that he's been brilliant at unraveling them. Despite the fact that the Clapham case keeps getting mentioned as though it wasn't exactly a success. When the story opens Moon is getting bored again and, what a happy coincidence, things are getting weird in London. A disreputable actor is killed by some sort of creature that can climb up walls. This is followed by a similar murder. The theatre where Moon performs (and lives) is burnt to the ground. A strange man who claims to live backwards in time keeps popping in and out of Moon's life. A clairvoyant madam gives warning that some sort of secret society is going to take over London in about a week. There are all sorts of creepy people wandering about. Can Moon figure it out and stop the society from destroying London civilization? Well...can he? Most of the novel, it doesn't seem like he's gonna be too successful at that. He runs round in circles, demanding answers from people who refuse to cooperate and finding out just enough to move the story along. Barely. And when he finally does get to the bottom of things the reader (at least this reader) is left scratching her head and wondering, "What the heck?" and "Seriously? That's what it was all about?" The two redeeming bits for me: The narrator. He made the book for me....at least until the big reveal at the end. I can't tell you much about that or I'll spoil the story. But let's just say that he gets WAY too smug once the reveal is over. The Prefects. Two for-hire killers who are modeled on British public school boys. Sure, they're quite evil, but it's all in good fun. What ho? Okay. That's it. Sorry, I can't give you a more indepth review than that....but I'm still blinking and shaking my head. If I think of something more profound, I come back and let you know. For now--three stars. Middle of the road kind of read. This review was first posted on my blog My Reader's Block. Please request permission before reposting. Thanks.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey Johnson

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I almost never stop reading a book partway through. Something has to be really miserable for me to not finish it - movie, tv show, book... generally no matter how bad I find something, I want to get through it so that I can see if it redeems itself or gets worse, so that I can have a complete view of the work in question. That being said, the only book I just stopped reading in the last two years is this one. The Somnambulist is that bad. For starters, do you remember that episode of the simpsons I almost never stop reading a book partway through. Something has to be really miserable for me to not finish it - movie, tv show, book... generally no matter how bad I find something, I want to get through it so that I can see if it redeems itself or gets worse, so that I can have a complete view of the work in question. That being said, the only book I just stopped reading in the last two years is this one. The Somnambulist is that bad. For starters, do you remember that episode of the simpsons where Moe's bar gets updated and turns into a hip night spot? The usual crew (homer, carl, lenny, etc.) come in and ask him about the decor. Moe responds "It's po-mo" they are confused. "post modern" still confused. "weird for the sake of weird" the regulars understand. This book is weird for the sake of weird. remember, though, I said that was just for starters. To give you an idea of what I mean, the main character has a sexual predilection for bearded and deformed women. I suppose that some tip or important clue will come from the freaky brothel, but said clue could as easily come from a regular brothel or a drug den or virtually anywhere else... so obviously this particular taste of our hero is chosen to be simply strange and off-putting for no very good reason. That is merely a sample of the sort of thing that happened many times in the hundred-odd pages I read. Once you get past the slapped on coat of oddness, you notice that the story underneath is wildly derivative. The insightful and famous London investigator with the potentially embarrassing habit and the quiet friend/muscle who shares his dwelling could be several different character descriptions, most obviously Sherlock Holmes. The magic angle is reminiscent of The Prestige, The Illusionist, or even Robertson Davies Deptford Trilogy. Don't get me started on the goddamn time travel. So we've got a willfully eccentric and deeply unoriginal book... what else is wrong with it? Well, it's not very well written. The plot takes at least 100 pages to get anywhere (how far, I can't say) the sentences and paragraphs are pedestrian, the characters are poorly drawn, and, most importantly, there is absolutely nothing at stake that I, as reader, care about. Some kind of murder is happening of some supernatural nature, and our unpleasant self-centered "hero" is hired to help the police... and that's it. I don't particularly care if the murderer is caught because the victims are as unpleasant as the hero and the only reason I would ever read on is if the perpetrators were made to seem incredibly threatening (and therefore likely to kill this character that I especially dislike in a book full of unlikeable people), but the nature of the information revealed about the crimes is so poorly executed that the feeling created in the reader is more mild interest than terror or fascination. The only good thing I can say about it is that the cover looks nice, so you can look at it in the book store, admire the well chosen font and intriguing image, and then quickly put it down. If you're like me, the cover reminds you of the prestige, so go read that or watch the movie instead. This book is awful.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Brooke

    When I read the "If you liked these , you will love The Somnambulist" list that Borders put together, I decided that Jonathan Barnes' debut would have to land on my "favorites" list. It was compared to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Neverwhere, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and The Prestige, some of my most favorite things ever. It was probably a mistake going into it with such high expectations, because although it was an excellent book, I felt disappointed after I turned the last When I read the "If you liked these , you will love The Somnambulist" list that Borders put together, I decided that Jonathan Barnes' debut would have to land on my "favorites" list. It was compared to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Neverwhere, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and The Prestige, some of my most favorite things ever. It was probably a mistake going into it with such high expectations, because although it was an excellent book, I felt disappointed after I turned the last page. This Victorian-era book is about a stage magician who also solves crimes for the police. He is a sort of Sherlock Holmes type, using his powers of ratiocination to untangle the threads that the police stumble over. The title refers to his assistant (both on stage and in his crime solving), a giant who doesn't speak. They start off investigating the deaths of two men, and uncover an entire plot against the city of London. It's slightly satirical of other books in the genre, in a very subtle way. And it's bizarre. It just gets weirder and weirder and it ends on an ambiguous note that left me wondering if I was satisfied or not. It was certainly an awesomely fun ride, but was it a great book? I can't decide. Its ambiguity was a plus for it, in some ways. Barnes did a very good job of not spelling everything out, and instead left some things to the imagination. The main character had some tragic incident in the last case he took on, and although it's referred to many times, it's never explained what happened. He never explains where the Somnambulist came from (he just showed up at the main character's door one night), or why he doesn't speak. There's a shadowy government group involved that never gets a full explanation. It lends an extra air of mystery to the already-mysterious plot. One thing I didn't understand was the title - both the reason for naming the character and for naming the book after him. There's only one throw-away line that mentions that he sleepwalks, and his sleepwalking never plays any part in the plot. It's a cool name, sure, but it doesn't serve any purpose. I'd probably feel better about it if I hadn't expected it to be my newest favorite book. I certainly recommend it to people looking for something fun to read.

  16. 5 out of 5

    ᴥ Irena ᴥ

    I don't think I have ever hated almost every character in a book until now. First, this story has an omniscient narrator (or at least close to one). You know, the ones who tell you things like 'as you'll see, this was a mistake'. Second, the main character is supposed to be a very good detective, but not a single thing that happens confirms that. Third and this might sound familiar: he works with an assistant, he has an older housekeeper and has an addiction (not drugs, something else, but still I don't think I have ever hated almost every character in a book until now. First, this story has an omniscient narrator (or at least close to one). You know, the ones who tell you things like 'as you'll see, this was a mistake'. Second, the main character is supposed to be a very good detective, but not a single thing that happens confirms that. Third and this might sound familiar: he works with an assistant, he has an older housekeeper and has an addiction (not drugs, something else, but still). His assistant, called the Somnambulist, is just an unremarkable presence in the story. The story starts with a murder, then goes on to another one, with our 'lovable' Moon running around acting tough and rude to pretty much everyone. The worst thing about this story is that it tells us about Moon, his achievements and failures and so many things are left unexplained. Not mysteriously good, just plain missing. The blurb sounds way better than the book.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jenne

    So, imagine that a magician/private detective, a time-traveler, a medium, a medium-debunker, a Scotland Yard inspector, a housekeeper, a bearded-lady of the evening, a shadowy government organization, a company called Love, a sinister "Oriental", a sideshow freak, a corpulent prisoner, a corrupt gaoler, two schoolboy hit-men, two vengeful mothers, the animated corpse of a famous poet, and a mysterious mute giant with a milk-drinking habit all run into each other in post-Victorian London, and the So, imagine that a magician/private detective, a time-traveler, a medium, a medium-debunker, a Scotland Yard inspector, a housekeeper, a bearded-lady of the evening, a shadowy government organization, a company called Love, a sinister "Oriental", a sideshow freak, a corpulent prisoner, a corrupt gaoler, two schoolboy hit-men, two vengeful mothers, the animated corpse of a famous poet, and a mysterious mute giant with a milk-drinking habit all run into each other in post-Victorian London, and then there is a Plot. The more you've read in the genre, the more fun it is, but it's not annoyingly winky like those Jasper Fforde things.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Beth

    More aptly titled "The Why-Botherist"

  19. 5 out of 5

    Kit

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. this actually came at recommendation from one of the blogs i frequent for book reviews, and so also motivated by the library due date, i had to finish this one before all others. the writing was actually decent throughout, and i found i wasn't very confused, for the most part, about the narrator and point of view. something that does confuse me is the character thomas cribb--i could never understand exactly why he does what he does, especially in the beginning of the story, after what happens at this actually came at recommendation from one of the blogs i frequent for book reviews, and so also motivated by the library due date, i had to finish this one before all others. the writing was actually decent throughout, and i found i wasn't very confused, for the most part, about the narrator and point of view. something that does confuse me is the character thomas cribb--i could never understand exactly why he does what he does, especially in the beginning of the story, after what happens at the end. that's more confusing than i care to analyze completely, and if the book was a bit more enjoyable, maybe i would flip back and reread, but as it is, this book isn't worth rereading for me. there were scenes near the end that repulsed me, but that i can credit to realistic writing. the title also struck me as potent with meaning, both in the literal and figurative sense, so some applause to that. but i have to admit what really drew me was the cover. i am a shallow girl at heart and i just can NOT refuse a pretty cover. so bravo to the marketing team too. i only wish that the conflict was more completely resolved. what's that with the boys in school uniforms? any clue to their identities? maybe they're the collective evil of the city? the villain's talk of his evil plans make no cohesive sense. you have the sense to plot out something that big based on a concept that weak? and edward moon, this supposed smartass of his generation, doesn't understand anything, even when the clues were in his face. most of what he gets credited for are done for him by other people. another case in point--i still have no idea what "powers" edward moon has--he supposedly read someone's mind from the audience. why is he such a blumbering idiot throughout the course of the events here then? it seems that the author is so preoccupied in building up the mystery of the villain's sinister plans that when the villain and the protagonist actually clash on the subject, the best thing the villain does is show him a corpse and a lot of liquid. and that this is what supposedly converted a lot of followers for him. no explanation as to how, no clues as to the significance of this.. it just is. and when the entire plot is pivotal on this single event, i'm left wondering how in the world any of these characters find any of these things plausible. and if maybe they live in a world with a completely different set of the laws of physics. i think for a good book, this is a pass. for decent entertainment when you're THAT bored and at risk of becoming bald from your own ministrations, and this just happens to be lying around with an overdue library deadline, worth checking out. P.S. - there's certainly a reference to that video released by the iraqis a couple of years ago, the one of them sawing off the soldier's head as a form of execution? makes me wonder if this is any significance as to what the author's political allegience is, if he feels compelled to include that little tidbit in his book. or maybe that specific event just stuck in his head, who knows. i had to wonder.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Shanon

    The Somnambulist is a detective story about a retired detective, Edward Moon, turned conjurer (though I’m not sure what he conjures) and his sidekick the Somnambulist, a hairless milk-drinking giant. I kept waiting for Moon, the detective, to DETECT something but nope – never really did. Even in the end, the villain had to explain the entire evil plan to Moon – if only he made an evil cackle while doing so I would’ve had flashbacks to my childhood cartoon villains. Moon’s character was quite dis The Somnambulist is a detective story about a retired detective, Edward Moon, turned conjurer (though I’m not sure what he conjures) and his sidekick the Somnambulist, a hairless milk-drinking giant. I kept waiting for Moon, the detective, to DETECT something but nope – never really did. Even in the end, the villain had to explain the entire evil plan to Moon – if only he made an evil cackle while doing so I would’ve had flashbacks to my childhood cartoon villains. Moon’s character was quite disappointing really. Other characters more than make up for Moon though. We have a bearded lady with an extra appendage, a fly-man, a crazy organization that makes all their employees change their names, a group of school-boys turned soldiers and the Somnambulist himself. The characters are what make this story unique and ultimately held my attention. I’m a sucker for circus freaks though and I wanted to find out what new crazy character would come out next. Now – after talking negatively about Moon and positively about the other characters I should mention that I imagine Moon’s blundering detective work is in large part due to the narrator’s opinion and am in fact smiling at my naiveté in assuming the narrator was entirely truthful in describing Moon's abilities and detective work. We are warned in the first paragraph “Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you’ll believe a word of it.” We are even told that the narrator WILL lie – and yet I still believed him. I am feeling a little duped right now – but in a good way. I tend to read books in bits and pieces as I have time. I have the feeling if I could’ve dedicated a block of time to this book to read it all at once (or listen since I have the audiobook) without distractions I would’ve enjoyed it more. I enjoyed the book enough that I plan on reading Barnes’ other book, Domino Men, but am in no hurry.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Margaret

    A frustrating book in that it started strongly and then dissolved into a muddle about a third of the way through. The plot loosely hangs together, but (a) emphasis on "loosely," and (b) with no real underpinnings in logic or why we should care. Even fantasy (this book reads like a fantastic mystery or a mysterious fantasy - take your pick) needs logical, thought through in some detail and depth, underpinnings. Here, the plot and "purpose for being" of the book and the solution to the opening mur A frustrating book in that it started strongly and then dissolved into a muddle about a third of the way through. The plot loosely hangs together, but (a) emphasis on "loosely," and (b) with no real underpinnings in logic or why we should care. Even fantasy (this book reads like a fantastic mystery or a mysterious fantasy - take your pick) needs logical, thought through in some detail and depth, underpinnings. Here, the plot and "purpose for being" of the book and the solution to the opening murders is based on "pantisocracy," which is described to have sucked in 1,000 followers. However, the purpose of the organization and the description of the "pantisocratic" theory is reduced to a couple of brief sentences on page 328: "Freedom, food and poetry for all... The death of commerce. A new Eden at the heart of the city." And that's IT. An author can't just throw a lot of weird characters, ideas, and circumstances together, call it fantasy, and leave it to the weirdness to sustain the plot or the reader's interest. This is the "Boy, let's do this and then this and then this..." school of writing. Ultimately, it appears to me that this is what Mr. Barnes does, and while the book contains some interesting visuals, the plot and characters (of which none are particularly fleshed out) didn't carry my interest. I finished the book out of obligation, but was happy when it was over. And that's a pity b/c, again, the beginning was so promising.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Colin McKay Miller

    Jonathan Barnes’ The Somnambulist finds a way to keep the fantastical rather dull. Edward Moon is a detective and magician in Victorian-era England. After a man is mysteriously murdered, Moon is brought onto the case along with his partner, the Somnambulist—a mute, hairless giant who loves milk and can be stabbed without seemingly any ill effects. There are all kinds of oddities as the novel goes on—circus freaks, bearded ladies, a man claiming to live his life backwards—and while none of it is r Jonathan Barnes’ The Somnambulist finds a way to keep the fantastical rather dull. Edward Moon is a detective and magician in Victorian-era England. After a man is mysteriously murdered, Moon is brought onto the case along with his partner, the Somnambulist—a mute, hairless giant who loves milk and can be stabbed without seemingly any ill effects. There are all kinds of oddities as the novel goes on—circus freaks, bearded ladies, a man claiming to live his life backwards—and while none of it is really explained, it doesn’t need to be. Mostly, it just needed to be more interesting. I can’t say exactly what it is, but from the early going, the narration didn’t do it for me. There’s not just monologuing; it’s hoity-toity monologuing. I get it, Victorian England, influenced by Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein and all that, but meh. I like those; I didn’t like this. While many who did enjoy The Somnambulist didn’t care for the final 40-50 pages, that’s where it started to pick up for me, as I’d wished that all those fantastical beings were interacting all along. Before this, there was a dragging mystery that wasn’t all that mysterious (or important), a convoluted plotline that really fell apart when explained, and an ongoing dragging feeling for what should’ve been a fun fantasy read. Instead, Barnes tempered the fun for a humdrum literary tone. Two stars. Barely.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Donna

    I have to admit I kept reading this just out of curiosity of how it would all end. I mean, any book that has a bearded lady prostitute, a giant who can have swords driven right thru him without bleeding or even be hurt, is one that rouses my curiosity. The characters are definitely unlike any I had read about before, which also kept me going. I was disappointed in the main character, though. Edward Moon is supposedly a legend in his own time, renowned for solving murders. I know his prime was su I have to admit I kept reading this just out of curiosity of how it would all end. I mean, any book that has a bearded lady prostitute, a giant who can have swords driven right thru him without bleeding or even be hurt, is one that rouses my curiosity. The characters are definitely unlike any I had read about before, which also kept me going. I was disappointed in the main character, though. Edward Moon is supposedly a legend in his own time, renowned for solving murders. I know his prime was supposed to be behind him, but still, I didn't see much evidence of his so-called brilliance. It seemed to me the police investigator Merryweather discovered more clues (and the most important) than Moon, and the ones Moon did uncover were only because he was helped by someone who supposedly lives his life in reverse, which was a major point of confusion for me. Another point that baffled me even more was when the narrator, midway through the book, reveals that everything he has told the reader about two minor characters is totally fiction. Then, without skipping a beat, he keeps right on weaving them into the story as if he hadn't tossed out that little tidbit of info. What the heck?!! Overall an interesting, maybe even fun, read, but I think the opening paragraph sums it up: "Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible...frequently ridiculous and wilfully bizarre."

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tracey

    I believe this was a pass-along from my Mom, but I don't remember what (if anything) she had to say about it. The quickie review: a poor-man's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Set in Victorian England, an unreliable (and 4th wall breaking) narrator introduces the reader to Edward Moon - "past forty and barrelling toward his 6th decade" - a magician whose career is (forgive the pun) waning, and his enigmatic partner, The Somnambulist. Moon is also a celebrated detective, tho it seems his last case I believe this was a pass-along from my Mom, but I don't remember what (if anything) she had to say about it. The quickie review: a poor-man's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Set in Victorian England, an unreliable (and 4th wall breaking) narrator introduces the reader to Edward Moon - "past forty and barrelling toward his 6th decade" - a magician whose career is (forgive the pun) waning, and his enigmatic partner, The Somnambulist. Moon is also a celebrated detective, tho it seems his last case went poorly; so when he is approached by the police, to investigate a bizarre death, it is reluctantly at best. The story gets somewhat complicated from here: a louche murderer (and former partner of Moon) dying in Newgate Prison, the head of cult dedicated to the ideals of a long dead (or is he?) poet and an enigmatic time traveler are all thrown into the plot, shaken well and poured out on the page, with shifting viewpoints thrown into the mix. The phrase "trying a bit too hard" comes to mind. I enjoyed the atmosphere Barnes created in this novel, as well as some clever turns of phrase, but the novel is both more complicated and more simplistic than it needed to be. It was a fun, disposable read - library loan or freebie at best.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Stefan

    I finished this novel a couple of days ago and haven't written anything about it so far because, honestly, I can't think of anything relevant that hasn't been written before in other reviews. It's a very good novel, somewhere between historical fantasy and horror, with a dark, witty sense of humor and an interesting narrative style. It's set in Victorian London, but the city in the book falls somewhere between China Mieville's New Crobuzon and Neal Gaiman's "Neverwhere". (Although, come to think I finished this novel a couple of days ago and haven't written anything about it so far because, honestly, I can't think of anything relevant that hasn't been written before in other reviews. It's a very good novel, somewhere between historical fantasy and horror, with a dark, witty sense of humor and an interesting narrative style. It's set in Victorian London, but the city in the book falls somewhere between China Mieville's New Crobuzon and Neal Gaiman's "Neverwhere". (Although, come to think of it, the Neverwhere resonance may have been caused by a duo of murderers who made me think of Croup and Vandemar.) I truly enjoyed this novel (despite the fact that I can't think of a damn thing to write about it!). I'm curious to read the new book by Barnes, "The Domino Men", which was just released this week. From the blurb, it sounds like it's a prequel of sorts, and I believe the title characters may be those two killers I mentioned before. Could be good!

  26. 5 out of 5

    Bandit

    This book in insane in the best possible sense. I'm not sure I have ever come across more crazy wacky outrageous impossible magical and strange characters all packed in the same book. And it works. The madness of a plot, conspiracies and victorian mysteries and magic and mad poet followers and a titular mute giant with a fondness...no, passion for milk, the narration trickery, the quirks of the story telling, the whole thing miraculously works and oh so well. I've read this mad adventure in a da This book in insane in the best possible sense. I'm not sure I have ever come across more crazy wacky outrageous impossible magical and strange characters all packed in the same book. And it works. The madness of a plot, conspiracies and victorian mysteries and magic and mad poet followers and a titular mute giant with a fondness...no, passion for milk, the narration trickery, the quirks of the story telling, the whole thing miraculously works and oh so well. I've read this mad adventure in a day, just had to see what happens. Great book, highly recommended.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Eve (Between The Bookends)

    This book introduced me to a sub-genre of speculative fiction I have never heard of before "steampunk". Speculative fiction is a genre that I really enjoy so it comes as no surprise that I thought this was a great read! The characters are well written, delightful and wilfully bizarre. There is a certain suspension of disbelief required to appreciate the book but I urge you to give it a go...you won't be disappointed!

  28. 4 out of 5

    Dan Schwent

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. My only complaint about this book was that it was too short. It had all the things I look for in a story: interesting characters, good dialogue, and unexpected plot twists. I really enjoy a book when I'm not sure what direction the story is going in.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jay

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. As an emerging fan of steampunk, I looked forward to reading this book. After finishing it I give it one star simply because I finished the book, and I can't rate it a rating of a half star. Here is why: The plot is all-too obvious and as a long-time fan of detective fiction, the choice of using the omniscient but unreliable narrator is a curious one. In more skilled hands this choice might have worked. But Mr. Barnes lacks any ability to bury his clues such that the only mystery in this book is the As an emerging fan of steampunk, I looked forward to reading this book. After finishing it I give it one star simply because I finished the book, and I can't rate it a rating of a half star. Here is why: The plot is all-too obvious and as a long-time fan of detective fiction, the choice of using the omniscient but unreliable narrator is a curious one. In more skilled hands this choice might have worked. But Mr. Barnes lacks any ability to bury his clues such that the only mystery in this book is the identity of the narrator. The hack magician/detective Edward Moon sleuths by insisting over and over again that people tell him what is going on. You'd think Barnes would have at least let the Somnambulist push some people around but no. When told to leave the Love enterprise or "we'll call the police," Moon agrees. Really? Barnes is also incapable of revealing either plot or character with dialogue except by the overuse of adverbs. Barnes can only tell us what his characters mean by their words through such pat phrases as "calmly," "demanded" and so on. Had these been the only problems with this book, I probably would have characterized as a fromance gone bad and given it two stars. But Barnes uses unfortunate-but all too common-metaphors for evil that render this book not much better than toilet paper. Like the hack Dan Brown, Barnes uses people with disabilities as vehicles for all manner of evil. I would characterize Barnes' uses of disabled characters as so gratuitous as to be disturbing. All but one die horrible deaths and the one that lives previously made her living as a prostitute to Moon. Skimpole the albino suffers a long and painful death after drinking poison. But he is also an arsonist and manipulates Moon by burning down Moon's house and killing a show animal in the process. Presumably his death is warranted since he has a mortal character flaw. How do we know this? Because he is an albino! (See Dan Brown for confirmation of this stupid literary device to show us the dumb reader how evil - evil, I say - albinos are). But why have Skimpole's crippled son suffer the way he did? Skimpole's son uses crutches to move his paralysed body. We do see some tender moments between Skimpole and his son. But then our narrator tells us on page 220 that these tender moments didn't happen. The narrator tells us that he has written these tender moments because he is "(g)ruesome old sentimentalist...." So we should therefore be not anyway surprised that the son is then beaten to death with his own crutches by the Prefects as payment for a hit ordered by his father. Though innocent of any wrongdoing, I presume he had to die in the way that he did as a way of showing how really crazy those Prefects are, how unsentimental Barnes is and perhaps because the child is a courageous but nonetheless pitiable creature (pp. 235-236). But wait, there are even more crips-as-fetishes-and-evil-humans! The human fly-a carnival man who can scale tall buildings with the greatest of ease-murders two people. He dies. And if those freaks aren't evil, they are sexual objects! The aforementioned prostitute-a bearded lady with a vestigial limb-survives but becomes a drone in the Love company. (Moon also apparently procured the services of a woman described only as "pinhead" and woman described as having flippers for arms). Barnes has Moon described his sexual proclivities as in the spirit of experimentation. That might work in the hands of a far more skilled writer, but with Barnes, these characters are merely experiments in his failed attempt at describing a society of "edge-people" and how edgy Moon is by association. It's the disability equivalent of white people trying to act black, to show the world how hip they are. Even the Somnambulist - the title character - does little in this book. He can be characterized as a freak, eight-feet tall, hairless and doesn't speak. I suspect Barnes' publisher suggested this character as the book title as a way to lure readers into the book. Largely ignored by Moon, the Somnambulist is a freak-show attraction who can have knives driven through his body without bleeding, at all. Here we have the disabled/crippled body as somehow inhuman or superhuman. Skimpole's body, too, is superhuman. He survives long after Moon or his sister Charlotte would (i.e. normal people, in case you haven't figured that out yet) after quaffing a large dose of poison. Barnes relies on other stereotypes to show us evil. Besides being temporarily-able bodied, bad people are also really, really, really, really fat. Surprised? I didn't think so. Given that the first murder victim was feckless and fat and died a horrible death, I should have put the book down. But I didn't. Take my advice and don't read the book at all! It. Only. Gets. Worse. The stereotypical metaphors for fatness as sloth and gluttony at one end and pure evil on the other get worse. The Fiend, once the beautiful assistant of Edward Moon, followed Skimpole the albino into a life of sin that ultimately ends with the Fiend committing the act of murder. (Leave it to a amoral albino to corrupt this once beautiful man....) Sentenced to die, we meet the Fiend in Newgate where his beauty is now gone. His moral degeneracy is underscored for us the dumb reader, because well, he's fat! And not just overweight, but so fat as to be disgusting. The use of body size and ability as metaphors for all manner of human ills suggests to me that Barnes is a writer without imagination and one that thinks little of his reader. As an example of steampunk, I think there are better examples to be found in Phillip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials and both the movie and television versions of Wild, Wild West. Save your time for better pursuits and don't read this book.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Marie

    Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. These first words, both on the front flap and front page, are the reason I picked up The Somnambulist and raised my hopes. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed. What with such a promising voice and the subject matter--Victoriana, such possibilities!--I expected a lot more...exuberance, I think is the word. Instead, despite the promise of "no literary merit", it's written in a literary style. Which, quite frankly, isn't very Victorian or pul Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. These first words, both on the front flap and front page, are the reason I picked up The Somnambulist and raised my hopes. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed. What with such a promising voice and the subject matter--Victoriana, such possibilities!--I expected a lot more...exuberance, I think is the word. Instead, despite the promise of "no literary merit", it's written in a literary style. Which, quite frankly, isn't very Victorian or pulp. The title is misleading too. Yes, there is "the Somnambulist" but he was more a Chekhov's gun than a character. He was introduced early, and brought back in the last few pages, but for the most part entirely forgotten in the middle. Actually, the middle was just about a turning point. Barnes had a fairly interesting story set up in the beginning, and then the book just seemed to lose focus. Large casts can be interesting, but this book should have been Moon's story, and the Somnabulist should have had a reason for being there other than the Deus ex Machina. So character after character just kept being introduced, far too late for a reader to truly care, and only in time to confuse the plot and weaken the sense of suspense. What's almost worse is that Barnes kept lampshading these weaknesses: They were in a bubble there, the giant thought, far removed from the world outside, and on hearing Gillman speak, he felt as though someone's else's story, some other narrative, were impinging itself, suddenly and without warning, upon there own. Well, I for one, couldn't keep track of which story was actually being told. I often enjoy metafictional devices, but here it felt they were only used to highlight the story's weaknesses, those I was trying to ignore. The narrative structure also distracted from the story. Complicated narrative voices can work, but this has a first person narrator telling a story in third person; not, ostensibly, about Moon, the first character (who's not a corpse-in-waiting) we meet, or the Somnambulist, who only occasionally gets a POV, or even the narrator--though I think at the end we're supposed to think so. Given the early set up--the narrator, Moon, and the Somnambulist, suddenly around chapter 10 and to the end, another half dozen characters all get POV time. And while I found the narrator occasionally amusing--after the first chapter, I did laugh once or twice, the big reveal of his identity left me cold. At that point, I knew it wasn't any POV character so far, nor any of the previous 'big three', so I knew it was going to be just another character. And after the reveal, the story lost most of it's momentum and immediacy, which is a shame because that's when most of the action actually happened, not to mentioned the horror. (view spoiler)[A child is found beaten to death, and it was dull. (hide spoiler)] And the narrator was just obnoxious, rather than amusing. There were plenty of well-placed elements of the grotesque that added to the atmosphere. Ms. Puggsley's, was a fantastic invention. Barnes did a good job with the female character, letting them be characters, and none of them were just what they should be as females. Unfortunately, none of them were particularly significant characters, though Charlotte should have been. "Curious, is it not, how it is often the worst sceptics and bitterest cynics who become the most zealous of us all" And the transition of that character's story mostly works, though we don't see it. (view spoiler)[Speight's sign though...if you don't see that coming...but his character was actually well done--like the canary in the coal mine. He's well done in that it's subtly done (hide spoiler)] Now, The Somnambulist is well written, but somehow I felt that it held the work back. Earlier, I said it should have been exuberant. The Somnambulist can't be human! Moon is past his prime, but London is going to be destroyed! Why all the literary sophistication, when 1) the narrator is "without any ability to enthral the reader, to beguile with narrative tricks"; and 2) it's too slow for the subject. It's supposed to play with the ideas of Doyle (which is explicitly pointed out in the text), Poe, Wilke Collins and even Mary Shelley--at least according to one of the blurbs. By rights, it ought to be a little fun. This is undoubtedly because it was a stylistic choice--fair warning, at the end the narrator tells the story behind the story: I feel sure that my skill has grown with the tale's telling and I am concerned that the opening sections must seem amateurish and crude in comparison with later chapters. I have repeatedly asked if I might not be allowed the complete manuscript, if only for an hour or two, so that I might make some revisions and clarifications from which the work can only benefit. To date, they have denied my every request But I can't enjoy literary posturing just for the sake of literary posturing. Metafiction can be fun, but only when there's enough of a story to rest on.

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