The title character in Jonathan Barnes' "penny dreadful" homage The Somnambulist is a mute, hairless hulk who assists Victorian Era professional magician and crime-solver Edward Moon as he aids the London police with their toughest cases. The Somnambulist haunts the background of Barnes' debut novel, gulping down jugs of milk and occasionally questioning his employer's choices by scrawling misspelled words on a piece of slate. He plays no significant role in the outcome of the story, and as for why either he or the book is called "The Somnambulist"… Well, that mystery remains locked in Barnes' head.
The Somnambulist is simultaneously an audacious and anemic introduction to Barnes' overstuffed imagination. It drops readers into the middle of a convoluted mythology which reaches beyond the first and last pages. Barnes' narrator alludes to the 60-odd cases that his hero Moon has solved previously, as well as to the adventures he'll have later on, some of which are known to one of The Somnambulist's key characters: a man who lives his life backward, and has thus seen Moon's future. Over the course of The Somnambulist, Moon also crosses the paths of vicious assassins in schoolboy outfits, a human fly who kills prostitutes' johns, and a secret society dedicated to the utopian visions of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. And that's not even taking into account Moon's sexual attraction to circus freaks, his strangely symbiotic relationship with his sister, or the third-act appearance of the narrator as a major character. If nothing else, The Somnambulist is a wild ride.
But the wildness frequently spins out of control. In his eagerness to create his own richly imagined version of Victoriana, Barnes stuffs every cranny of his novel with odd ducks, strange doings, and references to much, much more that he could tell us, if we had the time and he had the page count. Frankly, the prospect of a return visit to the mysterious world of Edward Moon is attractive, if only for the possibility that Barnes might get around to clarifying some aspects of his hero only hinted at in The Somnambulist. (Like, does he or his assistant really have magic powers?) But if there's a sequel, here's hoping that Barnes will pay more attention to streamlining the storytelling, and let the universe-building take care of itself.