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The Somnambulist Hardcover – February 5, 2008

3.2 out of 5 stars 102 customer reviews
Book 1 of 2 in the Domino Men Series

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Julian Fellowes's Belgravia by Julian Fellowes
"Julian Fellowes's Belgravia" by Julian Fellowes
From the creator and writer of Downton Abbey comes a grand historical novel, with hugely exciting twists and dramatic chapter endings. Learn more | See author page
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Set in Victorian London, this superb debut from British author Barnes raises the bar for historical thrillers, starting with its curious opening line: Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. A page-turner, it's full of peculiar characters, notably Edward Moon, a highly unorthodox detective, and Moon's bizarre sidekick, known only as the Somnambulist. Moon, a conjuror by profession whose act has fallen on hard times, has cracked some of the city's most notorious murders. Now, he's leading the investigation into a shadowy religious group aiming to overtake London and do away with its oppressive, bourgeois tendencies. Moon is a remarkable invention, a master of logic and harborer of all sorts of unnatural habits and mannerisms. The Somnambulist—a giant, milk-swigging mute—doesn't appear to be human at all, yet serves as Moon's moral as well as intellectual compass. Together, they wend their way through a London rich in period detail. Barnes saves his best surprise for the story's homestretch, when he reveals the identity of his narrator, who's been cleverly pulling strings since the opening. (Feb.)
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“This superb debut from British author Barnes raises the bar for historical thrillers.” (Publishers Weekly)

“Strange, outrageous, and wonderful … There is much that is strange, magical, and darkly hilarious about this book … An original and monumentally inventive piece of work by a writer still in his 20s. Barnes seems to leave himself room for a sequel—a consummation devoutly to be wished.” (Washington Post)

“Old school entertainment in the penny-dreadful tradition that almost succeeds in being as sublime as it is ridiculous.” (Entertainment Weekly)

“Magical, dark, beautifully odd–and utterly compelling–this is an astonishing debut.” (Michael Marshall, author of The Intruders)

“Sneaky, cheeky, and dark in the best possible way, Jonathan Barnes’ massively entertaining THE SOMNAMBULIST manages to make the familiar daringly unfamiliar. I enjoyed the heck out of this novel.” (Jeff Vandermeer)

“Macabre wit and stylistic panache. Parliament should immediately pass a law requiring Barnes to write a sequel.” (James Morrow, author of The Last Witchfinder and The Philosopher’s Apprentice)

“A comic extravaganza, deftly plotted, fiendishly clever, and wonderfully funny. . . . One of the classiest entertainments I’ve read.” (Christopher Bram, author of Exiles in America)

“[B]rilliant...Barnes crafts one of the finest first novels of the young century...Truly surprising plot twists and red herrings abound.” (Austin Chronicle)

“A cheeky tale...salvaged from the sensationalist novels of the past three centuries....it doesn’t take an English-lit wonk to appreciate the antic mind that would name two of the grotesquely deformed prostitutes in Mrs. Puggsley’s brothel after virginal victims of Count Dracula.” (New York Times)

“A first novel that shows all the polish and poise of a master storyteller….By turns disquieting, funny, and taunting.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

“Anyone who loves a good, kind of creepy thriller most likely will find something to love in [these] pages…. Thoroughly enjoyable.” (Kansas City Star)

“The Somnambulist is not your great-grandfather’s mystery yarn.” (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow; First Edition edition (February 5, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061375381
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061375385
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (102 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,897,473 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By B. Capossere TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 19, 2008
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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