Saturday, November 22, 2008

Book Review: The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

book cover
I picked up a copy of The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes at the World Fantasy convention in Calgary. This is a dark urban fantasy about a magician/private investigator named Edward Moon who uncovers an apocalyptic cult in Victorian-era London. It's an extremely ambitious, clever first novel, and while I did not find it as rollickingly funny as some of the blurb-providers did, it's overall a fascinating read.

The novel parodies the tropes and conventions of old penny dreadfuls and Victorian detective novels; exactly how funny you'll find this book probably depends on your familiarity with these genres, and on how dark you like your amusement. If, like me, you've read relatively little Victorian-era pop fiction, you're not likely to fully appreciate the humor here. If you don't know what a penny dreadful even is, a lot of this book is going to seem pretty obscure.

Time to back up a bit. I called this an urban fantasy, didn't I? Okay. I've run into people who narrowly define urban fantasy as a type of contemporary fantasy, usually containing a strong romantic sub-plot, usually written from the first-person perspective of a girl or woman with magic powers who hangs out with vampires and werewolves and owns a strappy black dress and likely a lower back tattoo. In short, they define urban fantasy as a "harder" type of paranormal romance.

That ain't my definition, folks. To me, urban fantasies are fantasies set in the present (or near-past or near-future) in which the city is such an important part of the setting and plot that it's almost another character. Take the city out, and the story is diminished. I'm thinking books like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.

So: do not open The Somnambulist expecting to find romance; this book is pretty much the opposite of romance. Most of the characters aren't even remotely likeable, although some manage to be sympathetic and (for a while, at least) they're all interesting. If you enjoy Edward Gorey's cartoons and Sherlock Holmes, you'll probably find this book worthwhile. But if you read novels because you want to feel emotionally invested in the characters, you should probably stay far away from this book.

I'm in full admiration of Barnes for the ambition in this book, but when I finished it I couldn't decide if I actually liked it or not. Actually, I'm still not sure if I liked the book.

The first problem is the narrator. As I said, he's a cold, snarky Victorian intellectual who declares from the outset that he's unreliable and likely to lie (this struck me as an advanced form of "You can't fire me, I quit!"). The narratorial style puts the whole book at a bit of a distance. After a while, I found it hard to care about any of the characters, although I was still intrigued by the central mystery. However, when the big reveal came and I found out who the narrator actually was, I was strongly tempted to just close the book and set it aside and start on something new. (I'm glad I forged ahead, because there's a bit at the end that's pure genius.)

Another problem is the sheer number of characters. I don't usually have trouble keeping track of large casts, but two-thirds in I found myself paging back and forth a whole lot trying to figure out who was who. It did a lot to kick me out of the book.

The other problem is the plot. It started briskly, but seemed to sag a bit in the middle. And when I got to the end, I felt as though the plot's math was wrong -- things just didn't seem to add up. And in this type of book, which relies almost solely on engaging the reader's intellect, that's a big problem.

So, how to know if you might enjoy this book? Take a look at a copy of the book in a bookstore (or use the "Surprise Me!" feature on Amazon). Read the first couple of pages. A considerable amount of the book's appeal lies in the micro-writing and prose style, so if the sample pages don't grab you, this is not the book for you. If you like them, though, give the book a try; even though this book won't make my list of all-time favorites, I certainly don't feel as though I wasted my time reading it.