Barnes’ promising first effort introduces the reader to a wild reimagining of turn of the century London. It’s very “The world has moved on” a la Stephen King — technology is on the rise, magic/mystery in the form of our main guy Edward Moon, and the disappearance of the titular character, who exits stage left at the end of the story. What really solidified King connection for me were the constant, intriguing references to prior adventures and internal myths. I love world-building that involves a history, a place, as though the characters are more than stock pieces brought out for a bit of show.
I can’t talk too much about the narrative conceits, since that’s a DRAMATIC PLOT TWIST. However, Barnes introduces an unreliable narrator much in the same way Susanna Clarke does in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. What Clarke does with footnotes, Barnes does with first person — both use these techniques to establish the main narrator as intensely unreliable, and suggest that there’s more going on plot-wise than meets the eye.
On to the plot. Edward Moon’s a performing magician who sometimes solves mysteries when bored (and don’t we all? He solves murders, I obsess about the type of proteins my cat’s getting. What is meat by-product?). He’s got some mysterious faculties, but it’s never confirmed in-text whether these are mental faculties or magical ones. This is an interesting choice, since it’s not quite clear if he’s a brilliant man making impulsive decisions, or an average one with some really hot paranormal skillz. His best friend is the Somnambulist, a mute giant drinker of milk. Together — THEY SOLVE CRIME. Seriously, tho, they take on a case that eventually leads them to the mysteries of Love and into one man’s insanity. Along the way, there’s a bearded woman, a secret Archivist, and some grown men dressed as English schoolboys who like to kill things. They were my favorite. Actually, no, the Archivist was. Honestly, how awesome is it that one older woman controls access to all the info available on London’s mysteries? And she’s managing an archive! She’s like a proto-Oracle.
Sadly, Barnes’ ability to create fun, quirky characters is much higher than his ability to plot. While the characters were fun, the actual mystery itself was a bit of a let-down. Moon’s sister, Charlotte, is a very under-used late introduction, and many of the other female characters received a similar treatment. They were there, and they were vital, but they weren’t in on the main action, even though their roles were crucial to the plot. While there’s a lot to be said for Barnes’ treatment of masculinity — his male characters are complex, flawed, and believable in a way a lot of genre male chars are not — he doesn’t yet seem to have the knack for creating and using strong female characters. Hopefully, Barnes will return to Moon’s London — I know I’d love to find out more about the Archivist and the schoolboy assassins.