Monday, February 18, 2008

Lisa's Take - The Somnambulist (Jonathan Barnes)

I've always had a knack for walking into the bookstore, glancing at the bookshelf, and picking out a book that will be good. It's like I'm sometimes drawn towards certain books - and I hit much more often than I miss when it comes to these. The first time I can remember doing it was with Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy... they just sort of jumped off the shelf at me, so I picked them up, and they're what really shoved me into the thick of Good Fantasy back in high school.

Anyway, while I was in Seattle I entered a Barnes & Noble and toodled my way over to the fantasy (heh, misspelled that "fantasty" the first time) section. My eyes were drawn directly to a new release called The Somnambulist. I got the "this is going to be a good one" premonition, but I figured I'd read the first couple of pages, just to be sure. The following is what my eyes met, so you can see how I was convinced to go ahead and buy it.

Be warned. This book has no literary value whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it

Well. If that doesn't epitomize one of my favorite narrative styles, I don't know what does. Tongue-in-cheek, self referential, verbose, and well spoken? Yes please!

It turns out I was right - The Somnabulist was a real treat. It's sort of a... "post-VictorianSteampunkMagicalHorrorTrue-crime" mashup. Yeah, I think that more or less covers all of the genres spanned, though I might need to throw in a dash of "conspiracy theory" just to be thorough. The only book I know of that can compare to it thematically is Glass Books of the Dream Eaters - which is also excellent.

The story follows a man named Edward Moon and his stage partner, the Somnambulist. Edward is a magician who sometimes doubles as a investigator, and was once a high man in society, well renowned for his amazing shows and his detectively abilities. However, the book meets up with Edward a little later in life, when he's started getting a little shabby around the seams - less popular, and perhaps less sharp than he once was. The Somnambulist is Edward's partner and friend, and he is a paragon of The Silent Protagonist. Also, he doesn't bleed, which makes for a dandy addition to Moon's nightly magic performance.

I should mention that there's really a 3rd major character - the narrator that I gushed about above. The narrator is absolutely my favorite character in the book. He's entirely biased, kind of an ass, and as he warns you in the first page, quite happy to lie to you in order to further the plot. Granted, he usually comes out and admits his biases and deceptions in a timely fashion, but he's totally unrepentant about it. I've never encountered such a well-developed third party.

Anyway, the book follows these three and an extremely color cast of secondary characters through a murder investigation shrouded in mysterious circumstances. I can't say much more without starting to give the plot away, but some generic listing of the supporting cast might intrigue you, as you get to meet circus freaks, butcherous knaves with the manners of schoolboys, mediums, harlots, poets, condemned ex-allies and albinos. Oh My.

There really isn't much more to say, other than to reiterate how damn much I enjoyed The Somnambulist. Truly. It was a complete surprise and absolutely riveting until the end... I didn't guess a single one of the Big Reveals, which is more than most books can say these days. Go read it now!

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