41 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chilling and Provocative, And More Than You'd Expect!
Victorian London will be forever etched into the minds of readers that enjoy twisty mysteries and macabre adventures set against a history sharply defined in books and movies. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories first come to mind, as well as later forays such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore. Stephen Spielberg even took a run at the...
Published on March 5, 2008 by Mel Odom
70 of 73 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars four through most of it, but oh that ending
To be honest, I'm thoroughly divided as to the sort of review I want to give the Somnambulist. On the one hand, despite some flaws, for most of the book, it was one of the most fun reads I've had in a while. On the other hand, the last 40 pages or so were just downright bad. I don't mean simply disappointingly bad relative to the rest of the book, but off-the-rails,...
Published on March 19, 2008 by B. Capossere
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70 of 73 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars four through most of it, but oh that ending,
To be honest, I'm thoroughly divided as to the sort of review I want to give the Somnambulist. On the one hand, despite some flaws, for most of the book, it was one of the most fun reads I've had in a while. On the other hand, the last 40 pages or so were just downright bad. I don't mean simply disappointingly bad relative to the rest of the book, but off-the-rails, what-the-heck-happened, did-the-author-die-and-then-some-stranger-finish-the-book terrible kind of bad. Which leaves me with a dilemma. Do I recommend a book that closes out so disastrously? In the end, I'll say yes, thinking that perhaps others won't react quite so strongly to the ending as I did and also thinking, hey, they were warned. So hey, you were warned.
The positives of the book are many. It has an inventive plot and main character-- Edward Moon, a Victorian London magician who solves mysteries with his stage accompanist--the eight-foot tall, mute, and seemingly inhuman title character The Somnambulist (the only name he is known by throughout the book). Moon hasn't had a case for some time and the last one, it's hinted at many times, did not end well. He's bored and aching for something to relieve the ennui as well as wash the taste of the previous case out of his mouth. That case arrives in the form of a wonderfully staged murder that opens the novel.
From there we're pulled into an increasingly complex web of mystery, murder, and conspiracy involving secret government agencies, various human "freaks", master assassins, corporate power, mystics communing with the dead, omniscient librarians, a man who seemingly is living life backwards, Samuel Coleridge's poetry (and the poet himself), Moon's first partner now mysteriously ensconced in prison, and the list goes on, all of it related to us by a clearly unreliable narrator whose true nature is not revealed for some time.
For the most part, and for most of the book, it all somehow works. Partly I think because so much is getting thrown into the mix that one revels in the sheer richness and audacity of what's happening--the strange twists of plot, the odd characters, the literary allusions to Dickens and Holmes and Conrad and others. There's always a nagging feeling at the back of the head. The man living backwards is interesting at first but never seems to really go anywhere and then seems to just fall apart. For a detective, Moon seems to do very little actual detecting. Some of the phrases are strikingly modern. The Victorian London setting seems strangely absent, more prop than active aspect. And characters and plot situations that began as sparks of ingenuity seem to stop well short of their potential.
But again, despite these nagging thoughts, the book remains a fun ride of wonderful unpredictability, its positives outweighing its negatives through the first three-quarters. And then. Well. And then.
The bottom falls out. I don't want to ruin the ending so I won't be offering up any details. But it all just seems to careen out of control, almost literally. It was as if Barnes wrote up to a point then had a computer randomly finish the novel for him, given the set parameters of these particular characters being used and these particular settings. I don't know how else to describe it. The revelation of the narrator is a complete surprise, and works as surprise, but it's also a bit cheap in that I'm not sure the reader could ever have seen it coming and it offers up such detailed knowledge of thought and action that it's hard to see how it truly works. The wonderful quirkiness of plot and character blows up into sheer farce and surreal absurdity and not in any good way. Plot points are thrown out, some resolved, some not, all with a sense of abruptness and half-polish. There are still some wonderful images in these last 40 pages, but they are not put to any good use--they stand there cleverly, reminders of what the author could do, but only highlight what he doesn't do.
I can't think of the last time I've been so befuddled by an ending. It was so detached from what had gone before that I couldn't even get angry--it was like I stepped out of my original reading experience into someplace else. All I could do was wonder how I got there and how I'd lost my way. There was not confusion, no anger as I've said, just a big "why?" I can't say I'm sorry I read the book as I truly did enjoy the vast majority of the experience. But part of me wishes I'd lost the book along the way and just came to my own conclusions about what eventually happened. Recommended for its bulk, but fair warning to those who read it through to the end.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Didn't live up to its promise,
Many people reviewing this book inevitably begin by quoting the first few lines: "Be warned. This book has no literary value whatsoever."
I wouldn't say the book has no literary merit whatsoever. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the first 60% or so. And the first paragraph, as intended, intrigued me.
But then... my goodness, did it become convoluted. I don't really know what to make of this book. I was thoroughly engaged for the first half- to be fair, I was really into the second half, too. I wanted to know how the book would end, how the mystery would resolve. But with about sixty pages or so to go, I just lost respect for the story. It seemed as though situations occurred just for the convenience of the author having to get certain characters in or out of the story. The "climax," as it were, was such an utter letdown that I feel slightly offended. When you allow yourself to get so involved in a story, you do so with the expectation that it won't be a dead investment.
In my opinion, the story went swimmingly until the climax- when the narrator reveals his/her identity to the reader. After that, it descended into utter chaos. And that's the thing- after leading us on this wild goose chase of a novel for so long, entertaining as it was, I expected to be thoroughly wowed by the conclusion. And I wasn't. I didn't find it appealing at all. I thought it was a cop-out.
Ultimately, I was disappointed by the novel. I think the author started strong, and then lost his way. In trying to write some sort of Susanna Clarke meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Gothic mystery, he got caught up in the details and nuances and lost sight of the plot.
41 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chilling and Provocative, And More Than You'd Expect!,
Victorian London will be forever etched into the minds of readers that enjoy twisty mysteries and macabre adventures set against a history sharply defined in books and movies. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories first come to mind, as well as later forays such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore. Stephen Spielberg even took a run at the genre and the setting in Young Sherlock Holmes.
I have to admit, I'm a bonafide sucker for the milieu. I grew up hanging onto Sherlock's coattails while the game was afoot, and I never quite recovered from that first blush of fog-crowded streets and Hansom cabs clattering across cobblestones. Oklahoma author Will Thomas has set up a fine Sherlock riff in his own series about Baker and Llewelyn, Victorian detectives.
But Jonathan Barnes's new novel, The Somnambulist, takes pre-conceived notions of Victorian mystery novels and adventures and turns them on their ears. And this is only his first novel!
I was captured at once by Barnes's writing. He favors a blend of modern, easy to read, language mixed with a shading of the long-winded Victorian trappings and a touch of purple prose. It's a fine brew and I found myself sailing along within just a few pages. His writing is so smooth, and his imagery so evocative, that the world of Edward Moon and the Somnambulist grew larger and deeper and more textured with every word.
I have to admit, Edward Moon isn't one of the most likeable people you're going to find in this novel, but he is our chief detective. Like Holmes, Moon is a quirky individual filled with his own ego and intelligence. He's a stage magician by trade, but his intellect is keen and he's knowledgeable about a great many things. Moon is also rather novel in his relaxation pursuits, and I found myself jarred quite deeply when he elected to sample the wares of a local house of prostitution. I decided at that point not to like him overly much, but the traits - all too human and poignant for some weird reason - made him even more fascinating.
But where Moon has a few things hidden from the reader that are eventually revealed, his companion - the Somnambulist - remains an enigma. He's a large, strong man who can't speak but does communicate through a portable chalkboard he carries with him. He also has the peculiar ability of being able to become a veritable pincushion for swords that Moon thrusts through him in their magic act, and for enemies that battle him. He's got an unexplained fetish for milk.
Together, these two form our crime-fighting duo for the novel. In the beginning, Moon is vaguely interested in the murder of Cyril Honeyman. At first, Honeyman's death is believed to be a suicide. But Moon believes it's murder.
I really liked the mystery set up and the way that Moon and the Somnambulist were first brought into the mystery, then attempts were made to scare them off, then they were forced back into it. All the while the police were buzzing around trying to figure out what Moon knew. I enjoyed the familiar romp a lot.
Then about halfway through the novel, The Somnambulist takes a hard right turn into the Twlight Zone - without the warning signpost up ahead. I felt like Wile E. Coyote when he goes out over that empty canyon after the Road Runner. I'd been poking along with the novel at that point, simply enjoying the well-written read. Then the thing turned out to not quite be as simple as I'd believed.
I can't tell you any more. You'll have to read it to see where and to what lengths Barnes's fertile mind takes you. However, I recommend the read whole-heartedly. Besides the quirky characters, some tantalizing mystery reveals, and a huge backstory, Barnes offers a wonderful view of Victorian London. The city comes to life on every page.
Barnes crafted a compelling read and characters with this first novel. I can't wait to see where he takes his readers next. I'm going to be one of them.
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully Written Dark Mystery,
Edward Moon is a stage magician who occasionally does detective work on the side accompanied by his partner, the Somnambulist. Not having a case in a while, Moon has become complacent and bored with his life. So when a murder case is presented to him, Moon jumps at the chance to use his adept detective abilities. But for this strange case, Moon may have to call upon less than favorable characters for answers to his questions. Set in a dark and ominous London, Moon and the Somnambulist will come across a dangerous conspiracy that threatens the heart of London itself.
Narrated by a mysterious character with a distinct sense of humor, The Somnambulist is a cleverly written mystery with elements of fantasy. Written in the era of great detectives such as Sherlock Holmes, this dark, exciting story reminded me often of the movies The Prestige and The Illusionist. Though, The Somnambulist takes a decidedly unique tone towards the end. With imaginative and vivid characters, I found myself fascinated by each one and immersed in the narrative.
My favorite lines from the book are from the first paragraph:
"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 wilfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it."
It's that paragraph that had me hooked from the start!
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Original, but never quite comes around.,
"The Somnambulist" looked very promising. The discription tells of mystery, murder, and magicians. How can you go wrong?
The tale is about magician Edward moon and his giant sidekick, The Somnabulist, who also happens to be impervious to pain. Moon moonlights as a holmesesque detective and murders and mayhem ensue running through a London rife with victorian seances, secret government agencies, grown men in short pants and various freaks of nature.
On the whole the story is very original and starts down many roads that are entertaining. The writer just never seems to weave them into anything very appealing. There are so many threads, tricks and bizarre characters it seems likely that they are all the product of the same brain storming session. And once a notebook was full of these ideas about what might be interesting well... They never quite come together in any meaningful way. Some characters are completely extraneous to the story. Character development is also weak. It starts and then fizzles out. There are also spurts of something resembling humour but the silliness of a character only goes so far. All in all It was a decent read but left me wondering how good it might have been given the really good concepts.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing mystery, but remains too long undeveloped and then becomes downright bizarre. A failed attempt and not recommended,
In Victorian London, aging magician and detective Edward Moon, accompanied by his assistant, a giant known only as the Somnambulist, are called in to investigate the most bizarre of murders. As Moon's investigation continues, he uncovers a plot against the state--a plot which, after long preparation and much waiting, is now only days from being put into action. The Somnambulist is set in a world not quite like our own, colored by steampunk and fantasy and populated by a cast of bizarre, slightly inhuman characters. Although it has a decisive conclusion, the plot often feels as confused as the setting. Barnes waits too long before he decides what he wants The Somnambulist to be, and with its busy and unfocused confusion and abrupt and strange conclusion, the novel fails its potential and remains entirely mediocre. Not recommended.
The premise of The Somnambulist is particularly intriguing, largely because of its mystery. The little differences that separate the setting from our world, the inhuman traits and perceptions of some characters, the shrouded unknown of the plot: all of these aspects are perceived through a mist, intriguing the reader and urging him to delve into it that he may discover more. The book's failing is that for too long this mist is impenetrable, and when it finally parts what it reveals is downright bizarre. As Moon begins to suspect an underlying sinister plot against the state, the narrator compares his perception to a microscopic view of one strand of a spiderweb: he can see the details of his the fragment he sees, but cannot perceive the shape of the whole. So it is for the reader for the majority of the book, and this narrow view makes the events of the plot seem random and give the reader nothing identify and care about. To avoid spoiling the plot, I obviously can't talk about the final reveal, but without a shroud of mystery, the plot is just plain strange: a combination of random factors, some literary, some steampunk, some fantasy, some religious, the ending is bizarre to an extreme. It's not the sort of stangeness that broadens the reader's mind, but rather the sort that makes the reader wonder where Barnes got these ideas and why he decided to combine them in one story. The plot does have a decisive, even action-packed conclusion, but it is so strange that it's hard to appreciate.
On the whole, due to decent writing and the ongoing mystery, the book is readable. Barnes's prose is likewise quite strange, filled with dry humor and delivered by a narrator that often speaks directly to the reader (and by breaking the fourth wall, destroys any attempt to suspend disbelief). However, the omniscient narrator drops hints about the slowly developing mystery, keeping the reader looking ahead to the next potential development. But even if the book is readable, it is not good. Aside from the flawed mystery and the bizarre plot are a dozen other weaknesses: The narrator's identity is a contrived and unconvincing plot twist. By dancing on the edges of steampunk and fantasy without embracing either, the steampunk influences appear amateur and the fantastic elements are unbelievable. The most promising characters disappear, the main characters are unlikable, and the titular character remains an unexplored sideplot. And so forth--the book is littered with faults.
When I put down this book I was wondering why I ever picked it up in the first place. The premise is certainly intriguing, but it is the best that the book has to offer. Barnes's hovers on the edge of an interesting book, setting up the atmosphere and characters to support it, but hovers for too long and then only at the last moment delves into the strangest of novels. Don't let the concept of this book or its constant hints towards greatness pull you in, because the result is disappointing. The book is readable, but by the end it becomes a frustrating practice in mediocrity and unfulfilled potential. I would love to see a better novel built upon this same premise, but I do not recommend The Somnambulist.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars In Which Characters are Thrown Into the Air Like Confetti, while the Author Stands Back Shouting "Ta-Da!",
This review is from: The Somnambulist: A Novel (Paperback)
Edward Moon is a shadow of the detective he once was, and he's positively aching for a case that will challenge him and shock him out of the doldrums. His last job had ended badly, damaging his reputation with the ton. Moon and his sidekick, the giant, mute Somnambulist (who has an unholy penchant for milk) are tapped to solve a case by Detective Merryweather of the Scotland Yard. It's a set of two murders with identical circumstances. The details of these homicides are strange and have a hint of the unnatural. But the case is really just the tip of the iceberg; the rest of the mystery lies beneath the London streets.
This book is uneven. The opening sucks you in immediately, and it's certainly a very FAST read. It's populated by genuinely interesting characters - not the least of which is the titular Somnambulist himself. But... nothing ever really happens with them. I enjoyed meeting Thomas Cribb, the man who lives backwards, and was looking forward to seeing what his role would be in the upcoming mystery. So many hints were given about the Somnambulist, and I was frothing at the mouth to find out who he really was and why he was important. Instead, Jonathan Barnes stranded them in the midst of a story that didn't depend on them at all. They were like little islands in the midst of the current of plot. They just didn't matter.
Up until the climax of the story, the book had been an enjoyable (although strictly average) romp. But the end? The end COMPLETELY fell apart. It was as if the author had laid out all of these clues for the reader like bread crumbs that were then eaten by birds. Once he realized that they were gone, he just threw the characters up into the air like confetti and watched them land, shouting "Ta-Da!!!" I was very disappointed.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What the heck was that??,
What the heck was that?? That is what we (my daughter read this with me) said after finishing the book.
This started great - very clever intro & was immediately interesting.
The writing,story and characters were quirky, jerky, and humorous. We enjoyed this for about half the book - then it started to seem long then a little irritating then a cloud stated to move in - the cloud was "I'm not sure
he is going to finish this." Lastly, we experienced a shocked dissappointment at the conclusion. It seemed the author threw together
all these characters and plot lines with no real plan on how it would all
come together. The end seemed hurried and botched, an afterthought to the storytelling.
3-stars for the writing style, characters and enjoyment of the storytelling.
If you enjoy reading for reading sake this is A+ if you expect some
sense and a satisfying conclusion this is a D-.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Falls Short,
Barnes' approach to story telling is fun and different. He often tells you approximately what is going to happen next in the story, but does it with such aplomb that it doesn't decrease the suspense of the story. I fact it is quite entertaining. Those unique approaches as well as some good surprises really sustain the first part of the book. The scenes are richly detailed and I could really picture it all in my mind. Granted, Barnes' writing is smooth, very descriptive and fresh, and that carries the story well as we move through the first 100 or so pages. But a hundred pages into a book, I want to be fully invested, and I couldn't help but feel the author was holding back a bit. I was enjoying the read, but it some how felt unsatisfying. One other note about the writing; Barnes seemed determined to show off his vocabulary, pulling obscure words and phrases from Latin and French, and throwing them about just to prove that he could.
Finally, Barnes begins to really unleash the story and just as I was thinking that it was a good thing that I stuck it out, he goes from a solid effort to the foolish. Despite the fact that the book is full of odd and fragmentary players, the introduction of some of the endgame characters is over the top, and it doesn't work. In the end, he leans heavily on two very unlikely characters to generate the climax of the story and it's just plain silly. It is a fine line Barnes walked during the first two thirds of the story, but he fails in the end. Ultimately the story spirals into inane and unsatisfying directions. Too many loose ends are left unexplained and excessive brutality dominate an otherwise balanced storyline.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Ultimately disappointing,
I have to agree with a number of the more critical reviews here. I kept hoping that there would be a payoff for the reader trudging through this octopuss of a novel, but it just never came. I think the author tried to be more clever than he actually is and the great "mystery" behind the story just doesn't seem to live up to the breadcrumbs scattered throughout the book. The author also seems to be trying to shock the reader with details of carnivalesque grotesqueness (fine by me) and brutal violence (not my cup of tea) and leaves me with a sense that he is trying a bit too hard to shock. I did like the character of the Somnambulist himself, hence my 2-star rating.
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The Somnambulist: A Novel by Jonathan Barnes (Paperback - January 6, 2009)