Friday, March 13, 2009

Weird, wild stuff

I had a lot of fun with the Somnambulist, the debut novel by Jonathan Barnes. Given the Victorian setting and science fiction/horror storyline, I am surprised I had not read it sooner. I attribute it to the tongue tying nature of the book's title. The book is short at about 350 pages, but it packs in more ideas and characters than you find in a book twice as long. The main characters are a gone to seed magician/investigator named Moon. His assistant, the titular Somnambulist, is a mute giant, apparently impervious to pain. They face a series of killers, shadowy government agents, an undead poet, a man who experiences time backwards, a Russian assassin and a conspiracy to change the face of London.

The language is the greatest attraction in the book. Barnes uses the florid, over-written prose style of the era to great and humorous effect. He also provides a narrator who occasionally breaks the flow of the story to comment on the progression of the tale, and even to call into question the sort of person who would want to be reading such a thing.

Barnes takes the grim, grotesques of Dickensian London and amplifies them. On nearly every page you get a startling image. Of course the poor quarters are filled with broken down individuals living in creaking tenements with rotting food. In Barnes's London, even the well to do are given to the odd. The investigator Moon is a devotee of a house of ill-repute with a stable of most unusual ladies. The head of the government intelligence service belongs to club, of which the main requirement for joining is physical deformity. His right hand man is a oily and vile albino.

The case of the albino spy shows the novels main flaws which is a looseness with characters and a plot that flies out of control. This character veers from wicked to sympathetic and then becomes a discordant source of pathos. The plot also runs out of control with the tight mystery story caught up in an orgy of chaos. All of the characters and oddities introduced drag the narrative quite a bit. While in the first half of the book, I tore through the pages, the last half was more like an amble. Still, I liked it overall and will be reading the next one soon.


Anonymous said...

This is very interesting, Tripp. I got this one and expected to love it (after loving Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night) but got bored in the middle. Perhaps it was that florid style, which I just didn't find humorous enough to enjoy. I did read the whole thing but it doesn't stick with me the way the Cox book did.

Tripp said...

I think the Cox book is far better too (and where is the next one!), although I liked this one enough to stick with it. If you don't go for the pulpy overblown style, then you really won't like this one. I have thing for the sci-fi/horror blend as well.