Fantasy Review: ‘The Somnambulist’ by Jonathan Barnes

Edward Moon was once the darling of London, a magician who helped break some of the biggest cases of the time.  His day seems to be pasts however and he is now invited to soirées more out of habit than any desire to have him present.  His stage act still draws modest crowds, though mostly because of his silent (as in mute) partner, The Somnambulist, a giant of a man who does not bleed.  He is bored, spending his time lamenting the lack of interesting criminals and visiting a brothel specializing in very unique tastes.  As is bound to happen, strange murders around London brings him out of his lull, and once he starts investigating things take a turn right past strange and into ****ing weird.

I knew I would like this book almost immediately, because I am a sucker for a unique voice in the narration.  The narrator tells me he may lie at times, holds grudges against characters, and acts in a condescending manner throughout; of course I am all in.  Readers will either love or hate it when his identity is revealed; I felt it was unnecessary but didn’t really detract from the book.

In some ways the book reads like homage to just about everything.  Allusions to Dickens, Frankenstien, penny dreadfuls, and a few of the name drops common in books with a Victorian setting (very few thankfully).  The narrator calls the book literary nonsense but he is wrong, literary hodgepodge is more apt.  I am sure there are twenty homages I missed completely that those better read would pick out in a heartbeat.

Plotting is secondary, though it is not necessarily a weakness. First come the throwaway references, McGuffins, rantings of the narrator, and the introduction of characters that may or may not be important.  While not every characters is important to the plot, what a cast they make!  The Prefects are bound to be most peoples favorite, two grown men in school boy uniforms that make Croup and Vandemar look like angels.  An inmate in Newgate with a passion for trinkets and baubles is a strange addition, and there is a whole club just for those with grotesque injuries.  But get past all this and a reader is bound to realize that the plot itself was deceivingly simple.  Moon really had no say in what was happening, he just followed the rails and did what he was supposed to.

If a person is a reader who wants all of their mysteries solved they will hate this book.  McGuffins and red herrings aplenty litter the book, little plot elements introduced but never expanded on.  Where did Moon’s former partner go wrong?  Why can’t Moon and his sister be around each other for long?  How did a certain organization command such strong loyalty so quickly?  What the hell is The Somnambulist anyway, and where did he get his name when sleep seems to be no problem at all for him?  For that matter, is the title character even really important to the plot?  Geez, I am just getting started.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys dark humor, a quirky narrator, and isn’t put off by lack of resolution of every plot line.  Must be forgiving of unlikable characters and some jaw-dropping awful moments.  Not recommended for those looking for a completely coherent plot.  Mostly it comes down to this; if you want to read a book with middle aged assassins dressed like school boys who think they are the epitome of wit, then jump right on it. 

4 stars

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