The Somnambulist
by Jonathan Barnes

Gollancz, 2007, 9.99, 320pp
ISBN 9780575079427
This review first appeared in Vector
Those crazy Victorians seem to be such a rich seam of material for so many modern authors, and we here in the science fiction corner seem no more immune to their whiskery charms than anyone else.  Cue the entrance of Mr Jonathan Barnes ‘the renowned impresario’ (it says here), with his new work of sensational fiction The Somnambulist.  Who is the eponymous sleepwalker?  Well, interestingly he isn’t the central character of this pulp Victorian world – that particular honour belongs to illusionist and part-time detective Edward Moon.

Moon is an independent fellow, nightly performing a magic show in his very own theatre.  once a dazzling orb in the firmament of fashionable society, he has long since passed his zenith.  Nowadays, as well as making a respectable living with his magic show he also serves as an agent of last resort for the London constabulary in particularly peculiar cases.  Moon’s long-time companion, not to mention a staple of his stage act, is a giant of a fellow known only as The Somnambulist, a downright queer fish who drinks nothing but milk and communicates only via a small blackboard and chalk.

Frankly, it’s all a bit of a rum set-up.

Moon is called upon to assist in the investigation of the death of a Mr Cyril Honeyman, found dead in the street having apparently leapt from an upper window.  Needless to say, Mr Honeyman’s death proves to be anything but suicide, and is in fact linked, by a skein of logic so torturous as to be almost physically painful, to an underground plot to bring the city of London to its knees.  Arraigned against the forces of anarchy are, in order of increasing effectiveness: the Metropolitan Police, shadowy government departments, even murkier secret societies and, finally, Edward Moon and The Somnambulist.

Can Moon, in one last blaze of perspicacious glory, decipher the slim clues before him and save old London town from a formidable, unknown terror?

The Somnambulist, as I’ve already said, is a rum old set-up and no mistake, and I’ll be blowed if I know quite what to make of the thing.  

For instance, despite claiming to be set just after the turn of the century, clinging to very coat-tails of the Victorian era, The Somnambulist really owes allegiance to no particular period.  Most of the “Victoriana” herein is divertingly painted scenery rather than authentic background detail.  All the boxes are ticked - there are grotesques, repressed and repugnant desires, Dickens-esque caricatures (indeed, Barnes recycles some of Dickens’ character names), plus if you’ve read Alan Moore’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Mieville’s New Crobuzon novels, then you’ll feel at home, and probably appreciate the hints of a much deeper and darker history.

In the end though this is a less exacting or satisfactory read than either of those because The Somnambulist doesn’t add anything to our collective folk memory of “Old London Town”; preferring rather to simply exploit the pre-existing vision.  So the milieu feels more born of “dream logic” than experience: Barnes tells you you’re in “Old London Town” rather than showing you, and since The Somnambulist is set in an era determinedly devoted to Realism (with a capital “R”), it all feels just a little too arbitrary to work effectively.  Moore’s League and Mieville’s New Crobuzon are both similar hyper-realities. Each is a twisted vision of our own world, but they are buoyed up by the overwhelming detail and description arraigned behind them – in Moore’s case by the “reality” of the other fictions contained within it, in Mieville’s by the sheer descriptive force of his prose. But Barnes’ story can’t match either of those.

And I’d be interested to hear why the book is called The Somnambulist when the eponymous enigma plays so small a part in the proceedings.  Despite his large size, this minor cipher could be excised entirely from the text with no significant change to the plot (only the title).

In the end, The Somnambulist, is a promising read, but tries to do too many things at once, leaving it unfocussed and episodic, as though the writer had produced it while himself caught up in a London fog.
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