Saturday, 26 July 2014
Project yourself back to Victorian London, with its teeming thoroughfares and dark alleys. Into that evocative scene now place Edward Moon, a deft stage magician and detective, and his silent associate, the Somnambulist. It would appear that the stage has been set for a criminal probes worthy of Holmes himself, but actually The Somnambulist unfolds something just as ambitious, yet far weirder. Moon discovers that giant rats are not the only things rustling through the city's gaslit streets; fiendish plotters, including the walking dead, have descended upon the great metropolis, bringing with them shades of Doctor Caligari and Edward Gorey.
This startling little novel of magical-realist Victoriana about the exploits of a fading magician / detective and his gigantic, mute, milk drinking associate as he investigates a series of unlikely deaths is maybe not an absolute joy but is certainly an intriguing one.
Whilst occasionally straying into the psychogeographical realms of Iain Sinclair, Barnes' tale is a stirring tale of deduction and destruction. Holmes is the obvious reference point here but is only that as Moon has a fully developed quirky personality of his own that needs no counterpart. The Somnambulist himself (the above mentioned milk drinker) is very much a peripheral character with minimal effect on the proceedings which makes his role as the title character a little confusing but then again he does have a cool name so why not. The setting, London, is treated as as much of a character as the flesh and blood (or whatever it is The Somnambulist is made from) ones and there are a number of odd and unusual characters revolving around the core that it makes for interesting reading.
The Somnambulist (the book not the character) is an entertaining enough read. Steampunk purists should probably stay away but personally I enjoyed it. As a novel it was always reaching, it didn't quite make it to where it was going but it never stopped trying and that was good to see especially in a debut novel.