The Somnambulist

The Somnambulist

by Jonathan Barnes


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Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it.

Once the toast of good society in Victoria's England, the extraordinary conjurer Edward Moon no longer commands the respect or inspires the awe that he did in earlier times. Despite having previously unraveled more than sixty perplexing criminal puzzles (to the delight of a grateful London constabulary), he is considered something of an embarrassment these days. Still, each night without fail, he returns to the stage of his theatre to amaze his devoted, albeit dwindling audience with the same old astonishments—aided by his partner, the silent, hairless, hulking, surprisingly placid giant who, when stabbed, does not bleed . . . and who goes by but one appellation:

The Somnambulist

On a night of roiling mists and long shadows, in a corner of the city where only the most foolhardy will deign to tread, a rather disreputable actor meets his end in a most bizarre and terrible fashion. Baffled, the police turn once again in the direction of Edward Moon—who will always welcome such assignments as an escape from ennui. And, in fact, he leads the officers to a murderer rather quickly. Perhaps too quickly. For these are strange, strange times in England, with the strangest of sorts prowling London's dank underbelly: sinister circus performers, freakishly deformed prostitutes, sadistic grown killers in schoolboy attire, a human fly, a man who lives backwards. And nothing is precisely as it seems.

Which should be no surprise to Moon, whose life and livelihood consists entirely of the illusionary, the unexpected, the seemingly impossible. Yet what is to follow will shatter his increasingly tenuous grasp on reality—as death follows death follows death in the dastardly pursuit of poetry, freedom, utopia . . . and Love, Love, Love, and Love.

Remember the name Jonathan Barnes, for, with The Somnambulist, he has burst upon the literary scene with a breathtaking and brilliant, frightening and hilarious, dark invention that recalls Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, and Clive Barker at their grimly fantastical best . . . with more than a pinch of Carl Hiaasen–esque outrageousness stirred into the demonically delicious brew.

Read on . . . and be astonished!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061375392
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/06/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 446,324
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 7.94(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Barnes, author of the critically acclaimed novel The Somnambulist, graduated from Oxford University with a first in English literature. He reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and lives in London.

What People are Saying About This

Jeff Vandermeer

“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.”

Christopher Bram

“A comic extravaganza, deftly plotted, fiendishly clever, and wonderfully funny. . . . One of the classiest entertainments I’ve read.”

James Morrow

“Macabre wit and stylistic panache. Parliament should immediately pass a law requiring Barnes to write a sequel.”

Michael Marshall

“Magical, dark, beautifully oddand utterly compellingthis is an astonishing debut.”

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The Somnambulist 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 76 reviews.
Janus More than 1 year ago
This was quite a curious little book. I would like to start by saying that the narrative style Barnes uses is really enjoyable. He definitely evokes that sense of Victorian mystery and quirky humor. The story was really good and would have made for a great novel except for a few shortcomings that really brought the book as a whole down. First: The characters. By the end the reader feels as though they have a better understanding of the supporting cast than they do the major characters. Edward Moon is supposed to be a vain and self-absorbed man, but the only times this truly shows is when someone flat out says so. He felt weak and I never saw any of the keen intellect that was supposed to make him such a great detective. Second: There are some things the author never explains that he really should have. Being enigmatic is one thing, but I got the sense that whenever he couldn't get the explanation of something to work within the context of the story, he simply left it out. Last: Barnes does a phenomenal job of building a real sense of tension throughout the novel. Readers will find themselves frequently attempting to unravel what this looming threat, this conspiracy behind everything, is. When we find out we are in for the let downs of let downs. I almost wonder if Barnes just stopped caring by the end of the book.
goodlifeor More than 1 year ago
If Jonathan Barnes is a good writer, he wasted his time on this tale. It is filled ad nauseum with what appears to be his forte of creating misshapen, repugnant characters that he uses badly. He has some good characters; but without much in the way of individual feelings. Even his characters have an aversion to each other. Do not read this book if you want to derive pleasure from characters and ideas you have met in your reading. This is not a keeper.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am torn when it comes to this book. Although the writing style Barnes' chooses captivated me, the essence of the book does not. At best I could read three chapters before having to put it down. However, the premise of the book is so outlandish that it sucked me back in. I would recommend it if only for the sole purpose of expanding your vocabulary, but also to make yourself suspend belief and catapult you to a different time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jonathan Barnes does a wonderful job with the characters of Moon and the mute Somnambulist. I found this a very difficult book to put down. Unfortunately, the last few chapters really stretch the imagination a bit far. It was just a bit too 'science fiction!' What we should see in any future Moon tales would be the prequels that would involve the cases so often referred to in this book...particularly the Clapham case! Write on, Mr. Barnes, write on!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Enjoyable and engaging, with interesting characters and a bizarre, sprawling plot that should attract any fan of the strange and mysterious. Towards the end, it does degenerate a bit into pure senseless oddity, but overall, I look forward to the next offering from Jonathan Barnes.
phoebesmum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a strange book. It starts out as a pastiche of the Victorian detective novel, with Edward Moon as the Great Detective, here moonlighting as a stage magician, his faithful sidekick, a devoted housekeeper, a fake psychic, the obligatory funny policeman, a couple of sinister government agents, and a fiendish conspiracy to be unravelled. Then, somewhere toward the end, bam! Zombie Samuel Taylor Coleridge. After that, everything goes a bit pear-shaped.I¿m not sure how seriously this novel was intended to be read, or whether it was conceived as a novel at all. Possibly the author just started writing one day, chucked in everything his brain could come up with, and never went back to check if he was making sense or not. There are so many stray unresolved threads that you start to think they can¿t be left hanging by accident, but, on the other hand, why anyone would write them on purpose is another question. To list but a few: we hear a great deal of something that happened to Moon in Clapham some years before; we never learn what. His previous assistant fell from grace and is now a bloated wreck of a man, awaiting death in Newgate; we never find out how. Moon and his sister can¿t spend too much time together or Bad Things will happen; we never find out what. (I'm guessing incest.) Why does one character experience time backwards and, having made that decision, why can¿t the author keep that timeline constant? What¿s the significance of that character being, apparently, Lud, the founder of the ancient city of London, and how does he manage this when he¿s supposedly from the future? Have the anachronistic schoolboy assassins Hawker and Boon, who seem oddly familiar, crept in from another book altogether? And, most pressing of all, why is the book called 'The Somnambulist' when the Somnambulist himself is only a minor character ¿ and why is the Somnambulist called the Somnambulist when he isn¿t one?Add to this that the book is liberally peopled with grotesques and freaks, with not a decent or a pleasant character to be found ¿ with the possible exception of the policeman ¿ and you have, as I said before, a very strange book indeed. But, oddly, quite a compelling read for all of that.
Philotera on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Edward Moon, a famous magician who is past the height of his fame, and his hulking sidekick, the somnabulist, are driven to take up detecting once again as London is on the brink of destruction. This odd story reminded me of bits of Conan Doyle and bits of Gaiman and bits of Chabon and bits of a variety of other writers stuck together in a patchwork to make a whole. Parts of it were pretty wonderful, parts of it were clear borrowings from other writers. I liked it well enough to finish although it made no sense at the end
wyvernfriend on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While quite readable this felt a bit of a cheat. You could almost see the laundry list of victorian era cliches. Most of the characters just didn't work for me and the entire thing wasn't really me. This is a book where you're either enchanted from the first "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." or roll your eyes. If you roll your eyes at it that will probably be the theme of your reading, or at least it was of mine. It's pretty difficult to place in time but I'd put it into Edwardian because of a throwaway remark by the time-travelling Cribb about the king dying in x number of years and Moon not questioning the King issue. Whenever it is it's late Victorian at the earliest.If you're a fan of this era and a fan of the entire semi-steam punk / underbelly of Victorian/Edwardian era stuff then it's for you but it divides it's readers quite strongly. Me, I liked parts but the whole was a little meh.
Abbyroad909 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story of magician/detective Edward Moon and his nearly indestructible companion, the Somnabulist. They are hired to investigate a bizarre murder and in the course of that investigation find a plot to bring down the entire city of London. The whole books is pretty odd. It seems as if the reader has picked up the book in the middle (or near the end) of a series. Frequent references are made to Moon's previous cases and characters are brought in that there is an unexplained background with. In spite of that, I really enjoyed the book. It is full of eccentric characters and rich atmosphere. I recommend it!
reannon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This unusual and intriguing story has as a main character Edward Moon, magician and crime-solving genius, a little past his prime. His partner in the magic show is the Somnambulist, seemingly impervious to pain and injury. They live above a theatre in London, and word reaches them of an unusual murder...and that is just the beginning of odd events, including prophecies of the destruction of London.The book has bizarre characters, fantastical elements, bizarre events...and it all works, and makes for a truly interesting read. Not, perhaps, for those with weak stomachs.
Ronrose1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Let me make it perfectly clear, this is not a book you should approach lightly. It is a puzzling mixture of mystery, suspense, and a touch of Victorian horror story mixed in a jumble of parts. At first it seems that all these qualities might make an exceedingly good tale, but alas it does not. The author tells the story of Edward Moon, magician and part time detective and his companion, the Somnambulist, who together are called upon to solve a series of murders and in so doing save London from destruction. The author tries to pay homage to past writers and their creations ranging from Sherlock Holmes to Frankenstein. I felt the author was being a bit too cute with the reader, going so far as to tell us that he would at times lie and mislead the reader, which he does.
TheCriticalTimes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If a novel or any other text begins with: "You will be highly disappointed with the quality of this work", then two things happen tend to happen. First of all you will most likely be disappointed with the quality of the work and second you will start to doubt the confidence of the author in his own writing skills. The intended effect 'the book is so amazing that adding this sentence will make it even more wondrous' will not happen since all the reader remembers is 'you will be highly disappointed'. The novel The Somnambulist does just this and more. As a reader you are immediately told that the narrator will tell a lie at least once in the coming chapters. Does this truly setup a novel well? Or is it a plot device intended to make sure the big plot twist was already announced and the author can go: see, told you so. Readers usually have no problem gauging the confidence and abilities of an author, we do not have to be explicitly told. Usually mechanisms like the ones discussed here are used by those who are not sure their intended effect will come over and they add insurance in case it doesn't. Why then is this author so unsure about this novel's effect? Surely he has plenty of knowledge and experience, he is after all an Oxford graduate, which we know by reading the back flap of the hardcover edition. A critical piece of information I'm sure.We follow the adventures of a dubious protagonist by the name of Edward Moon who owns and runs an cabinet of curiosities theater in which he works as an illusionist together with a strange man known to the readers for most of the book as 'The Somnambulist'. Immediately in the beginning of the novel the author draws a parallel with Sherlock Holmes, since in the past Edward Moon, the main character, has solved many complicated criminal cases. Conan Doyle who wrote the Holmes novels understood readers very well, he wasn't unsure about his prose, something we can't say about Jonathan Barnes the author. Doyle used Dr. Watson as an instrument of narration. We saw the world through his eyes, which made the eccentric behavior of Holmes digestible, understandable and most of all entertaining. Edward Moon has the Somnambulist, who in a lot of ways plays the same role, except he doesn't speak. Perhaps a joke on Doyle by Barnes?If we forgive this misplaced sense of literary humor, we are still left with some very bad character decisions, some major plot holes and a story that is so full of itself that it makes for some difficult reading at times. Holmes would frequently analyze a situation, clarify deep mysteries and most of the time baffle us with amazing feats of detection and deduction. Edward Moon does this just once and feebly at best. Moon later on seems to have lost all his deduction abilities to such extend that he doesn't even recognize his own sister who is sitting next to him in a disguise. Hard to believe for someone who used to be a celebrated sleuth. Any of this odd behavior can not be explained by a later major plot twist which I will not reveal here for those still interested in reading the book. Needless to say from reader's perspective after the twist, the behavior of Moon would still seem suspect to say the least. Even if we take into account that the narrator already told us he would lie. Why?Three quarters through the book the perspective of the reader changes and we're now reading the story first person perspective through the eyes of Moon's nemesis. Think Moriarty, except less brilliant and not as interesting. If one wants to paint oneself a master of criminal achievements, wouldn't it make sense to make the enemy you just defeated the best there ever lived? Wouldn't you want to ensure that you did not portray your nemesis as an incompetent bungler? Instead, Moon is depicted as someone who bungles from one disaster into another. Through one adventure after another Moon follows a trail of hints and suggestions instead of clues and signs, a character trait that can not be explai
ntempest on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was an odd book, but I found myself liking it despite some of the off-beat turns and bizarre characters. The story takes place in an alternative Victorian London as mysterious forces are gathering in an attempt to throw out all of the government and financial leaders and to replace them with their own chaotic system. A conjurer and sometime-detective sets out to uncover the individuals at the heart of the conspiracy by tracing the killers of two very different men. The Somnambulist is an odd giant-like mute, his assistant, who appears as much part of the mystery as part of the solution. The characters here were colorful and the story unpredictable, but I'm not entirely certain that the resolution was as satisfying as I would like, given the creativity of the plot as a whole. Still, I would definitely read this author's next book.
misericordia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When a author starts a book with the sentences "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 willfully bizarre." You should believe them. You disregard such comments at your own risk. I did and now the time I spent reading "The Somnambulist" is gone. I was left wonder if the sleep walker was a character in the book, the author or me!There was so much in this book that was un-answered. It seems like this book was an elaborate set up for another book. Domino Men perhaps? Well I'll never know.
jasonpettus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)Regular readers know that I am a big fan of the unique subgenre known as "steampunk," but might not know what exactly steampunk is; and similarly, regular readers also know that one of the issues often tackled here at CCLaP is the difference between so-called "genre" projects and so-called "mainstream" ones, but might not know what those differences are or why they matter. And since today's book under review brings up these topics yet again, I thought I would use it as an excuse to talk about them in greater detail, along with telling you about the book itself; because the book under question, see, is the inventive steampunk tale The Somnambulist, the high-profile debut novel of Times Literary Supplement critic Jonathan Barnes, a book destined to make you either squeal with Victorian fanboy delight or shudder with non-fan disgust. It's a great example of why genre novels are loved by fans of that genre and hated by everyone else, and why it can sometimes be so difficult as an "objective" critic to review such projects in the first place.So what exactly is steampunk, to not put too fine a point on it? Well, it was originally an outgrowth of the "cyberpunk" movement in science-fiction in the 1980s, which is how it got its name; novels and stories and comics that were being written by these same cyberpunk authors and dealing with the same complex modern issues, but couched in the visual sumptuousness and rigid morality of the Victorian Age, which for practical purposes you can think of as roughly 1840 to 1900. And indeed, it is not too much of a stretch at all to reimagine current tech and ethical issues through the filter of that era; it was the height of the Industrial Age as well, after all, the era that saw the profession of science first come into its own, a half-century of human history that arguably saw as much rapid technological progress as we're seeing in our own times. In a world where dozens of things formerly thought of as magic were actually getting invented, standardized and ready for retail sales, of course it would make sense to set a semi-fantastical, semi-magical tale within such an environment; now imagine the exquisite detail and luxurious materials that went into such Victorian-Age contraptions, all that brass and wood and ivory and the like, and you can easily see why a contemporary author might want to set a modern-style tale in those years instead of our own.And in fact Barnes' book teeters right on the edge of fantastical the entire time, a novel which could be argued is actually more magical realism than science-fiction; London at the turn of the 20th century, yes, but a London with secret magical archives in the basement of the British Library, a London with secret police departments guarding millennia-old mysteries from becoming public knowledge. It's within such a place that we meet the book's two main characters: a past-his-prime stage magician named Edward Moon who doubles as a notorious Holmes-style private investigator (in fact, Arthur Conan Doyle exists in The Somnambulist's London too, and is considered an untalented hack by our book's hero); and the eponymous "Somnambulist" in question, a hideous eight-foot-tall mute with no body hair, Moon's on-stage assistant and the focus of his most famous trick, able to be stabbed repeatedly with swords without ever being hurt, who refuses to drink anything else in his life but milk and of that 15 to 20 pints a day.And of course it's this that gets us into one of the first big differences between genre work and so-called mainstream literature (or movies, or whatever); a genre project is full of whimsical little details that cater to that specific genre only, that will be loved by fans of that genre but despised by most others. Because let's
harpua on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was an interesting book. I really enjoyed it most of the way through. There was something about it that kept me reading and made this hard to put down. I couldn¿t put my finger on exactly what that thing was though. However, despite a twist I was not expecting towards the end, though it made complete sense when it happened, I ended the book feeling somehow incomplete. So many unanswered questions, so many threads left hanging that I¿m dying for a sequel that will explain it all. Yet that mystery is what intrigued me about this story I think. Great read, highly recommend, but expect to be left wanting for more when you¿re finished.
Sean191 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read some other reviews where people complained that the ending was too far out in fantasy land...but I have to disagree. Actually, I can't disagree with that precisely, instead it's more about highlighting the ending as too fantastic. The whole novel was way out there. But that's not a bad thing. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and maybe it's just the fact that I read [The Good Thief] and [Fragile Things] recently, but I felt there were close similarities with those works. For the first, Gibson's and Tinti's character choices and development were both well-done, but oddly similar. Gibson also echoes Gaiman's dark gothic atmosphere well in this novel. In all, if you've read and enjoyed Tinti or Gaiman, you'll probably enjoy this book.
SweetAmber on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I hate to stop reading a book even if it is not everything I thought it would be. Unfortunately, that is exactly what I did with this book. I just had too many problems with this novel. To me, it took a very long time just to get to the point of what the main character was supposed to do. The flow of the book was just so slow, it felt like nothing was getting resolved. Another big problem with this book, was that none of the characters were likable....on any level. I don't mind when one or two of the characters are unlikable, but when the whole cast is? It got to the point where I began to dread reading pages involving the main character. I read 2/3rds of the book and just couldn't make myself read another sentence. Very disappointing.
Osbaldistone on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Well, I have to say I did enjoy this book, and for some of the same reasons that others didn't. Most of the characters are a bit off; for most of the book, you have a sense that there's a shadow just out of the corner of your eye that disappears just before you can identify it; there's a bit of science fiction mixed with the supernatural; and Barnes takes his time to paint an admittedly strange picture of the London, it's inhabitants, and the characters in this story. I enjoy all of this, and, given that I'm not a fan of mystery novels, all of these attributes makes "The Somnambulist" stand out as a good read.My main complaint is that Barnes doesn't feel impelled to explain all of the wierdness/otherworldliness that he writes into his characters and events. I can't tell if this is because he feels it adds to the atmosphere of the book, or because there isn't a good explanation. But if you think that reading this book will reveal who and what the Somnambulist is, think again.
kmaziarz on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In Victorian-era London, Edward Moon is a famous conjuror, performing miraculous feats of magic with the aid of his mysterious partner, the Somnambulist¿a mute giant of a man with a peculiar fondness for milk. Edward Moon is also a famous detective, solving mysteries using highly developed reasoning skills not unlike those of Sherlock Holmes. After a disastrous case, the details of which are never fully revealed, Moon has fallen somewhat out of favor, and is determined to regain his standing and his dignity. When two men are murdered in a bizarre fashion, Moon sees his chance and he and the Somnambulist spring into action.What Moon uncovers, however, is not a simple crazed murdered, but a nightmarish and far-reaching conspiracy that will draw in, not only Moon and the Somnambulist, but all of Moon¿s closest companions¿including a strange man named Cribb who claims to live backward, a beggar, an albino operative from a secret government agency called the Directorate, and Moon¿s own sister. Throw in a pair of near-legendary assassins, a bizarre cult bent on taking over London by force, and the poet Samuel Coleridge, and you have the ingredients for one long, strange trip!Fast-paced; intriguing; and strange; mixing the best elements of historical fiction, mystery, melodrama, horror, and comedy, ¿The Somnambulist¿ defies categorization. The somewhat unreliable narrator of this rollicking novel warns the reader from the book¿s first line that ¿This book has no literary merit whatsoever.¿ Now, the truth of that statement is definitely debatable, but what¿s certain is that this genre-bending book is a whole lot of fun!
GirlMisanthrope on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Delighfully creepy, humorously sinister,and full of n'er-do-wells, this first novel by Jonathan Barnes is an entertaining read. Mr. Barnes greatest strength may perhaps be character building/character descriptions, many of which left my skin crawling. His London is subversively under attack by multiple factions, led by men eager for power, any kind of power. This was a rip-roaring ride of a read.
the_awesome_opossum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Any book that begins by warning the reader that it "has no literary merit whatsoever...a lurid piece of nonsense," must actually have some redeeming value, right? This introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book, a fun and engrossing mystery set in Victorian England. Edward Moon is a sort of Sherlock Holmes, with the Somnambulist, a somber mute giant, playing the part of his Watson. They run a magic show, and solve mysteries on the side.Edward is called upon to investigate the death of Cyril Honeyman, an implausible fall from a tower with a bizarre cast of suspects and witnesses. But this is just a cover for a much larger conspiracy brewing deep within London, and Moon is determined to figure out exactly what's going on.This book is a joy and a thrill to read, and my interest never flagged as the conspiracy got more complex and intriguing with every page. There's a huge cast of colorful characters, and while the plot itself is nothing earth-shattering, everything is executed very well nonetheless.
ansate on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Reminds me of "A Series of Unfortunate Events". With more gore. And less plot. It's nice that your characters are "cool", but it would be a lot better if they advanced the plot. I'm sorry I bothered finishing it, since "what happens next" has nothing to do with making sense or explaining things, just cramming more bad fantasy tropes in.
eenerd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not a bad book, but the ending was REALLY weird!!!! Not in a bad way, for certain, but really really strange nonetheless! Fun book if you like the turn-of-the-century London fog mysteries.
craso on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a novel populated by many unusual characters. The main character, Edward Moon, is an out of fashion magician and a Sherlock Holmes type detective. Once the toast of London society, he is now out of favor even though he has solved over sixty extraordinary criminal cases. His partner is the Somnambulist, a mute, hairless, milk drinking, indestructible giant. Edward¿s nemesis is an albino named Skimpole who belongs to a secret British government organization called The Directorate. As he investigates the bizarre death of an aspiring actor, he meets a carnival freak, deformed prostitutes, a man who lives backwards, and sadistic killers dressed as school boys. He uncovers a cult that¿s purpose is to destroy London and raise a utopian society from its ashes. By-the-way, you can¿t trust the narrator because he admits to a tendency to lie and may actually be insane. A fun, baffling, fast paced novel, you won¿t know what¿s going on until the end and even then you will doubt what you have read.