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Jonathan Barnes – The Somnambulist

March 22, 2008

35. The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes (2007)

Length: 353 pages

Genre: A blend of fantasy, historical fiction, and horror

Started: 20 March 2008
Finished: 22 March 2008

Summary: Edward Moon is a washed-up stage magician in turn-of-the-century London, as well as an amateur (and relatively unsuccessful) detective; the Somnambulist is his giant, bald, and mute assistant. When a local actor dies in a unique and grisly way, Moon takes on the investigation as a means of relieving his boredom. However, the murder is only the tip of something much bigger – the rumblings of a sinister plot that may threaten the very city itself.

Review: Imagine if Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, Matt Ruff’s Sewer Gas and Electric and Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series got together and had a bizarre little baby and that baby had a terrible fevered nightmare, and that will give you some idea what this book is like. I can’t exactly say I liked it, although it was definitely interesting. I think the problem was that there were too many characters without enough (or any) characterization, too much going on without a lot of (or any) background, and too many strange mysteries without enough (or any) satisfying explanations. It read fairly easily, and I enjoyed the language and the writing style (except he really likes the word “unprepossessing”), but it felt a little disconnected – as though *I* had a fever and wasn’t fitting all of the pieces together into the whole. There’s a lot of interesting potential, but it feels as though the author was more concerned with packing one more strange, dark, and mysterious character or thread into the story, and forgot about actually making his story make sense to his readers. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Not a bad read, but not as good as I’d hoped it would be. Gaiman fans who’ve run out of Gaiman would probably be the most likely candidates to enjoy this book, but it’s not a rush-out-and-buy recommendation.

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First Line: Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever.


  • p. 19: “At the Theatre of Marvels there were no rabbits, no hats, no shuffling of cards, no coloured handkerchiefs, no rings, cups or balls – Moon’s act was altogether more recherché than that.” – of studied refinement or elegance; precious; affected; pretentious.
  • p. 25: “Patrician, elegantly middle-aged, she had an aloofness about her, a haughty froideur.” – an attitude of haughty aloofness; cold superiority.
  • p. 28: “The Somnambulist had changed into a set of striped pyjamas (due to his excessive size, these had to be produced for him bespoke) and was sitting up in bed, chalk and blackboard by his side, engrossed in a slim volume of verse.” – made to individual order; custom-made.
  • p. 31: “He drank compulsively, it seemed, bibulously, as though he could not live without it.” – fond of or addicted to drink.
  • p. 56: “The servant stood at the doorway and announced, with the po-faced solemnity of a pastor reading the last rites: “Mr. Edward Moon and the Somnambulist.”” – having an overly serious demeanor or attitude; humorless.
  • p. 102: “Two guards eyed them truculently as they approached.” – aggressively hostile; belligerent.
  • p. 103: “Owsley took them through corridors and passageways whose dingy walls dripped with fungus, damp and grime; past cell after cell peopled by the solitary condemned, their cries and lamentations filling the air, as choking and mephitic as smoke.” – offensive to the smell.
  • p. 105: “Barabbas lay at the furthest corner of his cell; corpulent, naked to the waist, his fleshy face framed by rings of Neronian curls.” – A hairstyle modeled on the Emperor Nero.
  • p. 119: ““Just as you’d expect – vague, oracular warnings, phrased in the most purple and prolix terms.”” – extended to great, unnecessary, or tedious length; long and wordy.
  • p. 148: “He looked at the spotless, soulless luxury of his bedroom and under the influence of an ineluctable compulsion began – quite deliberately and with clinical precision – to smash it all up.” – incapable of being evaded; inescapable.
  • p. 159: “Naturally he’d had his lapses and temptations, as a younger man in particular, but nowadays he strove for a pure and virtuous existence, a life of temperance, decency and moderation, free from sybaritism and excess.” – a person devoted to luxury and pleasure.
  • p. 322: “Moon was of course tiresomely sententious about the incident.” – abounding in pithy aphorisms or maxims.
  • p. 325: “Even now I shudder to think of the consequences had I gifted such weird power upon, say, Lord Byron or mad Blake or that oikish fraud Chatterton.” – depreciatory schoolboy word for a member of another school; an unpopular or disliked fellow-pupil.

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