There are some books that are good. There are books that are bad. But there are some books that…well, they’re bad too, but you really, really want them to somehow end up being good. So you read on you keep waiting for the characters to coalesce and hoping the plot will start making sense, because somewhere deep inside your soul you know it has to get better eventually. But it never does.
The book I’ll be talking about today, Jonathan Barnes’s The Somnambulist, is one of those books.
It starts out well enough. In fact the opening lines are nothing short of genius.
Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and wilfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you’ll believe a word of it.
See what I mean? How could you not pick up a book that starts like that? Except when you read an opening like that, you expect it to be ironic. If you get to the end and find that the book really was a “lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters” you’re going to be a little peeved.
The story revolves around a Victorian era magician/detective named Edward Moon, a man cast vaguely in the mold of Sherlock Holmes. Moon is joined in his adventures by a hulking superhuman freak called the Somnambulist. I’d tell you more about his character, but there isn’t any more.
It’s as if the author said to himself, “I need a strange and bizarre character to make my story more interesting. Maybe he could be like this giant that is impervious to pain. I could call him the Somnambulist. That sounds like a cool name right?”
In fact, I think that’s what Jonathan Barnes said to himself about the whole book. There are a number of completely fascinating characters who could easily have a fascinating story built around them alone that seem to be just thrown in for seasoning.
Meanwhile the plot is painfully thin. Basically there’s a secret organization that’s trying to take over the world. That’s all. Oh, and they also have Zombie Samuel Coleridge on their side.
Actually, let me say that again. Zombie Samuel Coleridge. This book has Zombie Samuel Coleridge in it.
But even the wonders of Zombie Samuel Coleridge (sorry, I just can’t get over how awesome that is) can’t pull this story out the funk of incomprehensibly that surrounds it like a cloud. On top of which, Moon, our protagonist detective remember) never solves anything. He simply stumbles across answers when the plot says he needs them. This is not how mysteries work. “Mysteries” like this are the reason I stopped reading the Hardy Boys. Back when I was ten.
And yet, somehow, in spite of all its shortcomings, I kept reading on. And this is significant. I am not above putting down a book if the author disappoints me. But there was something bizarrely compelling about the way that Barnes had assembled such a strange and amazing menagerie of characters and put them in a book with a plot whose thickness could be measured in microns.
Of course there’s the old and overused saw about watching a train wreck, but this book goes beyond that. Reading this book was like watching the Taj Mahal collapse. Beautiful and terrifying all in one moment.
And in the end, I have to say…I recommend it. It isn’t a good book, at least not in the conventional sense. I wouldn’t advise you to spend a lot of money on it, but if you can find it in your library or on the remaindered shelves of your bookstore go ahead and pick it up. The writing itself isn’t bad, and there is some strange pleasure to be had in its failings.
And again, because I have to type it at least one more time, it has Zombie Samuel Coleridge in it. That has to be worth something.
Get this book. Read this book. You will be disappointed. And I mean that in a good way.