'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.' So starts the extraordinary tale of Edward Moon, detective, his silent sidekick the Sonambulist and devilish plot to recreate the apocalyptic prophecies of William Blake and bring the British Empire crashing down. With a gallery of vividly grotesque characters, a richly evoked setting and a playful highly literate style this is an amazingly readable literary fantasy and a brilliant debut.
Perhaps more magical-realist Victoriana than steampunk this startling little novel about the exploits of a fading magician / detective and his gigantic, mute, milk drinking associate as he investigates a series of unlikely deaths is maybe not an absolute joy but is certainly an intriguing one.
Whilst occasionally straying into the psychogeographical realms of Iain Sinclair, Barnes' tale is a stirring tale of deduction and destruction. Holmes is the obvious reference point here but is only that as Moon has a fully developed quirky personality of his own that needs no counterpart. The Somnambulist himself (the above mentioned milk drinker) is very much a peripheral character with minimal effect on the proceedings which makes his role as the title character a little confusing but then again he does have a cool name so why not. The setting, London, is treated as as much of a character as the flesh and blood (or whatever it is The Somnambulist is made from) ones and there are a number of odd and unusual characters revolving around the core that it makes for interesting reading.
The Somnambulist (the book not the character) is an entertaining enough read. Steampunk purists should probably stay away but personally I enjoyed it. As a novel it was always reaching, it didn't quite make it to where it was going but it never stopped trying and that was good to see especially in a debut novel.