Jonathan Barnes' First Novel 'The Somnambulist' Thrills and Disappoints

I decided right away that Jonathan Barnes' debut would land on my "must read" list. It was compared to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Neverwhere, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and The Prestige, some of my favorites in the Victorian Fantasy / Steampunk / Mystery genres.

It was probably a mistake going into it with such high expectations, although it was an excellent first book, I felt let down and a bit disappointed after I turned the last page.

The book is clever and witty, setting up the reader with a caveat on the first page saying, "Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it." This sets the tone for the tale to come.

The story is everything the narrator promises. You’ve got Edward Moon, a past-his-prime stage magician who doubles as a notoriously famous Holmes-style private investigator (in fact, Arthur Conan Doyle exists in The Somnambulist's London too, and is considered an untalented hack by Moon). The Somnambulist, a giant who never speaks and holds many secrets, such as why doesn't he bleed when stabbed and what's up with the milk obsession? There are warm-hearted housekeepers, sybaritic layabouts, spiritualists, gung-ho police inspectors, and freakish prostitutes. There are also grizzly murders, treks through London's Underground, mysterious disappearances, secret societies, shadowy government organizations, the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the long shadow of past mistakes.

The writing is some times awkward and stilted, and the plot's as dense as the Victorian London Fog. It seems at times that he's writing scenes with no other purpose but to say to some LA or London Producer, "Hey! See how good this book would look as a movie." That gets distracting and took me out of the book a few times. It's a good first novel; an interesting, sometimes page-turning but ultimately disappointing read.

I'd be interested to to see if Barnes goes back to answer some questions, especially about Moon's apparently disastrous previous case and the potentially deep mine that is The Somnambulist.

February 1, 2008 by William Morrow

First published


isbn - 0061375381 (isbn13: 9780061375385)


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