Tuesday, 15 April 2008

The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

The book has its roots in stream punk or gothic horror with a dark brooding picture of late Victorian London full of grotesques, human monsters, corruption, dystopian nightmares and sharp contrasts of poverty and wealth. It draws on Dickens and Wilkie Collins with character names drawn. Another clear homage is Arthur Conan Doyle as the set up of Private Investigator (Edward Moon with loyal assistant (The Somnambulist) and long suffering housekeeper (Mrs Grossmith clearly draws on Sherlock Homes. A clear nod to 19th century literature is a narrator who judges and questions the actions of the characters and your motives as the reader.

It has three major plot lines: first is a murder-mystery in which Moon tries to discover how a rich wastrel died at the foot of a strange tower which leads him deeper into a vast cultish plot to remake London; the second is a political thriller in which the English secret service( The Directory) is locked in a deadly struggle with the Russian Secret Service and for its own survival and the third is an historical fancy with London itself as a character as well as a key character who is living back into time from the future. Each of the stories interacts and shapes the other until the climatic struggle for the soul and future of London of the final chapters.

The characters in The Somnambulist are just as much fun as the story. Obviously, Edward Moon the magician detective, the Somnambulist a milk drinking giant, the creepy Human Fly, the cold but cunning Albino, the curdling supernatural Prefects, the 100 year old Chairman of love, Mr Cribb, the embodiment of London, Barrabas, the bearded-lady whore... the list goes on and on. Each has a part to play in the story from beginning to end, and each person's story is, for the most part, tidied up by the end of the story.

But many of these characters are broad-brush stroke and as the plot lurches in all direction without given time to settle they often fail to engage. The novel could have been done best as a three book series or one 800 page book. The relative shortness of the story leads to lots of issues not being explained or to sudden resolutions. One of the approaches of suggesting a back story of some 20 years of work and fame now fading especially since the failures of the Clapham case (hint Jack the Ripper) is one of the few area of depth in the story. As you can see, it’s not a conventional story by any means and you do have to read carefully in parts. But to the relief of many I must make it clear that this is not in any way literature but rather pure escapism or “eye candy for the brain”. So want to switch off and dive into over the top escapist fun then this is the book for you!

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