This has been transferred from the Seattle Steamrats mailing list where I originally posted this on March 6, 2010, so if someone comes across that, this post isn't plagiarized. To date, I have posted only two copies of this review. Just a heads up, there are steampunk references as the Steamrats list caters to the subculture, to which this review was originally directed at.
So...The Somnambulist. The title is a tad misleading. Do not even
begin to think of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which is what I did,
when I took interest and started this book. The interpretation is
poetic at best, as the character known as The Somnambulist, does not
sleepwalk AT ALL and nor is the content of the story surreal enough to
evoke a sleepwalking-like state of thinking. Simply put, while it
wound up on the Library Journal's "steampunk" list, it really isn't
when you compare it to other works in the genre. It's a modern
Victorian mystery/fantasy. The only steampunk element is a device
towards the last few chapters of the book that is mentioned a few
times before the story ends.
As for the rest of the book, it's a slower read, but an interesting
story. The author, Jonathan Barnes, has a very distinct love (no pun
intended, for those who've read it and get it) for large and uncommon
vocabulary to the point where most characters loose any individual
distinction and development as they all sound very educated regardless
of their apparent class. I don't know how much of this single voice is
due to him writing from the perspective of a third party narrator or
that he just wants to show off his vocabulary. This is great if you'd
like to expand your vocabulary, but not so much if you want some
mindless reading before bed (though I did read it as such).
There are some loose ends in the story such as why certain characters
were chosen to do certain tasks before falling off the edge of the
pages, though again, this might have something to do with how heavily
driven the story is by the narrator. The narrator talks to the reader
at the beginning and then sort of disappears and you forget about them
through the story until the end and it makes for an interesting detail
particularly when you get to the end.
So, read the book if you'd like. Read it for the modern Victorian tale
that it is, for it's vague Gothic horror elements, it's Sherlock
Holmes-ish mystery. But whatever you do, don't read it thinking it's
steampunk. You will be sorely disappointed.