Fiction Reviews

The Somnambulist

(2007) Jonathan Barnes, Gollancz, 9.99, trdpbk, 315pp, ISBN 0-575-07942-7

Just in case you were wondering, no, this is not John Barnes (author of Kaleidoscope Century and Finity among others), but the debut novel of Jonathan Barnes, a different person. The cover blurb says that this will appeal to fans of Mark Gatiss and Alan Moore, in the former case presumably for The Vesuvius Club, and in the latter The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, though the similarities with either are slight (other than the mock-Victorian setting and the outrageous humour, but then why not include Kim Newman, Tim Powers, James Blaylock and many others...?). Anyway, it is the tale of the stage magician Edward Moon, sometime investigator of criminal doings, and his trusty sidekick The Somnambulist, called in to help with an inexplicable murder. Through various twists and turns Moon becomes embroiled in a plot by a weird cult to bring about the pantisocratic utopia of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and includes various grotesque characters, the secret service known as The Directorate, and the villainous Reverend Tan, leader of the Church of the Summer Kingdom, all spiced with Victoriana and Dickensiana (if that's a real word?). I'm very fond of this kind of stuff (my shelves are full of it) and I think Barnes has done a very good job and, as such, I am happy to recommend this book. However, I do understand that some people just can't be bothered (even if they like actual Victorian and turn-of-the-century literature) and, if you're one of those, then this book is not for you. For what it's worth, you do not need to be well-versed in this kind of weird and fantastic literature, nor have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Victorian London, in order to enjoy this book. Though there are references you will miss, these will not interfere with your enjoyment of the plot, and the writing is of a high enough standard to carry you along cheerfully. There isn't even any great mystery or stream of detection to follow, so if you hate puzzles, you need not be worried on that account either. This is very readable, quite funny in places, sometimes even touching, and a rip-roaring read that I blatted through in two days! (It would have been one, but I was busy...).

Tony Chester

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