Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Slambang Victorian Funfest

Jonathan Barnes's debut novel, The Somnambulist, is cover-to-cover entertainment. It's the sort of novel that demands that you pick it up as soon as you come home from work so that you can find out what happens next.

It reads very much like what Barnes writes he intended it as: a melding of the Oxford graduate's interests in Dickens novels, Conan Doyle's works, Doctor Who, etc. It also has a bit of first-novel syndrome. First novels are built like sprinters, not marathoners; the author pours in a little bit of everything he or she is interested in, often with little concern for how it fits into the overall story. Here, we've got a Victorian England story with a stage magician/detective, secret societies, socialist utopias, spies, steampunk, sexual perversion, and lots of other "s"'s, together with some mystical mumbo-jumbo and even some nods to classic monster stories and a macguffin reminiscent of Hideyuki Kurata's "Read or Die" franchise. Much of it is probably unnecessary, and on retrospect the joins are suspect.

But reading it, you really don't care, because contrary to its title, The Somnambulist moves like a freight train. It's not very deep, and you're unlikely to unlock the secrets of life from it, but it is a great deal of fun.

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