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Book Review: The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

* Genre: Urban Fantasy, Mystery
* ISBN: 0061375381
* ISBN-13: 9780061375385
* Format: Hardcover, 368pp
* Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
* Pub. Date: February 05, 2008

“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.”

Any novel that warns you, up front and without any real apology, that it will be a bad a piece of fiction, certainly piques my interest. In The Somnambulist, Jonathan Barnes does just that. Told entirely as a history from a witness to the proceedings, this novel, while unoriginal, was still fun to read.

Those moviegoers who saw The Illusionist or The Prestige (also a book by Christopher Priest) will be delighted with Barnes� tale. The chief character is Edward Moon, a magician and conjurer whose sidekick is the mute and amazingly impervious Somnambulist. Like the characters in those movies, Moon has a gift for observation, a skill that in Victorian London gives provides him with the diversion of amateur detecting. His methods are similar to those of his contemporary Sherlock Holmes, although Barnes does not write of them in any detail. When two brutal murders occur that seem unexplainable by Scotland Yard, Moon is brought in to help solve them. In the meantime, the Directorate, represented chiefly by the albino, Skimpole, wants to have Moon work on a separate case that the Directorate believes means that the city of London�s survival itself is at stake. Moon is convinced that the two cases are connected and sets out to discover the truth, along the way meeting the stranger characters of Victorian London such as a bearded lady, a man traveling backward in time, a famous poet, and a human fly.

What Barnes has done with his novel is not truly original. Like Christopher Priest�s The Prestige and The Illusionist starring Edward Norton and Jessica Biel, Barnes novel is a gothic Victorian tale centered on the character of a magician. Also copying Neil Gaiman�s novel and miniseries Neverwhere, The Somnambulist uses the characters of London�s history (Gog and Magog, Lud) as part of the warp and weft of the story. He even goes so far as to introduce a pair of murderers that are very nearly carbon copies of Gaiman�s Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemaar. This will make the novel appeal to fans of those books and movies certainly, but it makes me wonder at Barnes ethics.

Still, the novel is very fun to read. The story is fast pace and exciting. The identity of the villain is not revealed till late in the book and I must confess, I was surprised at who it was, although it should have been obvious. This is a mark of a good mystery. The scenes are varied and interesting, but not always well-connected. The ideology of the villain is fantastic and humorous. It provides a few chuckles through the narrator�s sardonic wit.

Barnes has a great facility with the English language. All though not difficult to understand or verbose, Barnes is not afraid to use large words where a simple one would work. Take the title for instance, The Somnambulist. Somnambulism is essentially sleepwalking, but sleepwalking is not really a part of the story, but the word is interesting. It does provide some of the metaphor for the story, as Moon’s name, the Somnambulist and a character called the Sleeper all relate back to the title. It is also the name of Moon�s conjuring assistant, who is a minor character throughout the story, but who plays a vital role in the climax. The title is actually really unrelated to the story, having only a tenuous connection to the plot, so I do feel that the publishers did the book a disservice by calling it that. Barnes� use of weird and wonderful words gives the story a panache that greatly enhanced my enjoyment of it.

Although the story is unexceptional in plot, the characters are interesting if lacking in depth (but I was warned about that, after all.). All are the dregs and outcasts of London society, or at least those on their way out, such as Moon. Choosing such characters story drive the story adds a bit of penny-dreadful sensationalism to the novel. The only characters whose psyches we really explore are Moon�s, the narrator�s, and Skimpole�s and those really only on the surface. Barnes is telling a mystery/adventure story in the setting of Victorian London so the reader should approach this as a story that is fun to read but in any way philosophical.

Barnes� use of the first person narration and the memoir style of writing are part of the fun of reading it. I spent a goodly portion of the book wondering who the unreliable narrator was, and the reveal of who he is in fact is rather fun scene. The narrator interjects, to humorous effect, several times into the story. It reminded me a lot of the novel I, Strahd in its style although with a more humorous cast. I�d like to see Jonathan Barnes use this style again, as I think he cleverly uses it.

I thought that this was very fun to read. Barnes has a wit and humor of the type I enjoy. The novel is that type of story that author John Zakour would call �bubblegum for the brain�. It is entertainment for a horrible-no good, very bad day. Fans of Gaiman�s urban fantasy will enjoy this novel (although they should be aware that there are some very suspicious similarities) as well as any moviegoer who enjoyed the mystery of The Illusionist (though it is not quite so clever). There are a lot of correlations between this book and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell although where that was literary in form (and massive), The Somnambulist is pulp fiction (and short).The Somnambulist is a comedy and a farce, written to make its reader�s laugh. If you are looking for some light entertainment this is an excellent novel to pick up.