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The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

The Somnambulist (2007)

by Jonathan Barnes

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,2121189,972 (3.26)158
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Showing 1-5 of 117 (next | show all)
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. ( )
  rickklaw | Oct 13, 2017 |
I tried again and it sucks so bad I can't finish it. It is a poorly written psuedo-Sherlock-cum-mysticism piece of wandering drivel. I'm embarrassed to have spent as much time on it as I did. This may be my reference for how bad a book is in the future. ( )
  Kitty.Cunningham | Jul 19, 2017 |
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. ( )
  Mrs_McGreevy | Nov 17, 2016 |
LOVING this book! Already don't want it to end. ( )
  anglophile65 | Mar 8, 2016 |
All right, the four stars are really for the concept, which I absolutely loved. I’m a sucker for both Victorian London and pseudo-Holmesian detective stories, so a novel that contained both of these elements could hardly fail to seduce me. Besides, the plot is, in essence, magnificent, involving strange secret societies, murders, mediums, and the revivified body of a dead poet, no less. Who could resist?

What lets 'The Somnambulist' down, unfortunately, is Barnes’ handling of his material. He starts off strongly - very strongly indeed - but by the time you get about a third of the way through you begin to get the feeling that he’s just got too many balls in the air. Don’t get me wrong, this is a mild criticism: with a story so complicated, it would take a veritable genius to keep things ticking over smoothly. Barnes (sorry, Mr B) seems to fall a little short, and so loose ends are left dangling, back-story is mentioned but never really explained or fleshed out, characters either don’t develop or develop in totally strange and unexpected ways, and somehow it just never feels as generally satisfying as you wish it did.

It’s a shame, in a way, because there’s so much else going for this novel. Barnes’ writing style is beautiful, eloquent and witty; his characters are strong and engaging; it could and should have been an absolute triumph. I think perhaps Barnes would have been better served by cutting out certain plot elements and making the whole thing a bit simpler; or, alternatively, by turning this relatively short novel into an absolute epic, whereby he could flesh out all the different strands of the story and bring them all together. As it is, it feels a bit rushed and slapdash.

Still, nobody and nothing is perfect, and this novel is fun, despite its flaws. I’d recommend it for anyone who likes steampunk, Victoriana, fantastic fiction or just general weirdness.
( )
  MariBiella | Dec 6, 2015 |
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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.
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Book description
A fabulous first novel about a stage magician trying to stop a sorcerous uprising in turn-of-the-century London, in the vein of bestselling works by Susanna Clarke and Neil Gaiman.

The Somnabulist follows the extraordinary tale of Edward Moon, stage magician and detective, and his silent sidekick the Somnambulist. A bizarre series of murders unsettles turn-of-the-century London, but as Moon begins to investigate, he realizes it is only the beginning: nourished by blood and poetry, an eerie uprising grows among the very roots of the city.

With a gallery of vividly grotesque characters, a richly evoked setting and a highly literary and playful style, this is an amazingly addictive, brilliant debut novel from an author with a great voice and huge potential.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061375381, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:46 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

A tale set in Victorian London introduces the characters of a stage magician and detective and his silent sidekick, whose fiendish plot to re-create the apocalyptic prophecies of Samuel Taylor Coleridge threaten the British Empire.

» see all 5 descriptions

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