Author: Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Epic Fantasy, Literary Fantasy
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Oh! And they read English novels! David! Did you ever look into an English novel? Well, do not trouble yourself. It is nothing but a lot of nonsense about girls with fanciful names getting married.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is Susanna Clarke’s debut novel and what a novel it is. Taking over ten years to complete, being over a thousand pages long, and having one of the most extensive marketing campaigns for a debut ever, Clarke’s story lived up to the hype. Not only did it sell well but it won a number of awards including the World Fantasy Award and Hugo Award for Best Novel, it was named book of the year by Time Magazine.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell begins in England in 1806. As the Napoleonic Wars rage across the continent, a man named Mr. Norrell who’s lived as a reclusive practicing magician reveals himself to England for what he is. Immediately becoming a social sensation, he is soon asked to help the war effort, and to take on pupils. Highly anxious, Norrell helps with the war effort at home but refuses to travel abroad, only helping in a limited way. He also reluctantly takes on a pupil of his own, the arrogant and brash Jonathan Strange. As the two magicians bring practicing magic back into the world, it begins to change the future in unexpected ways.
Clarke’s story is written like a 19th century English novel … albeit with a touch of fantastical magic. Her writing style and humor resembles the works of Dickens and Austin. Events play out at the same pace of those authors, too. That means this is a slow paced novel, with lots of social parties and gossip, with lots of page space spent on settings, customs, and bureaucratic positioning. It’s the writing style that will really determine whether or not the book is worth your time. If you loved authors like Austin, Dickens, Bronte, and Eliot then this is definitely the book for you.
An entire history about English magic is created. It assumes that magic was once widespread in England and that it was interconnected to a faerie world which subsequently brought magic into our “real world.” It’s this historical aspect that’s used to build a lot of the magic system – a system which has ambiguous rules, and is thus treated as a mystery. History is often conveyed to the reader through footnotes that interrupt the main plot – some of which can go on for pages. These interruptions are welcome and paint a picture of English magic as something for all intents and purposes was a natural part of England’s real history.
Mr. Norrell is an anxious, greedy, lonely, old man. He buys all the practicing magic books and keeps them in his massive private library, enabling only himself to study and practice any magic. He’s a highly traditional man; someone who values academic research; and he’s determined to see that only the public’s views about English magic coincide with “his” views alone. Norrell is so determined to make his views about magic be the standard norm that he’s willing to exclude major figures from magical history and to crush anyone who has a differing opinion on the matter. It’s Norrell that readers meet first, and through him they are introduced to the resurgence of magic.
Jonathan Strange is an arrogant and moody man that argues and feels passionately about the future of English magic – he is a picturesque Byronic hero. Strange is particularly taken with the (fictional) figure of John Uskglass, an English magician king from the past, that Norrell is determined to write out of magical history. Strange takes over the middle portions of the novel, once he signs on to be Norrell’s apprentice. Strange’s willingness to experiment with everything opens new doors for magic, and creates all sorts of new problems, but also turns up some solutions, too. Unlike Norrell, Strange is willing to travel the world, and it’s through him that many of the real life historical figures of the time are introduced. The Duke of Wellington uses Strange during his military campaigns in Spain and later on at Waterloo, George III tries to get him to cure his madness, and Lord Byron is pitted against him to challenge Strange about his views on magic and art. The traveling adventures of Jonathan Strange are a lot more exciting than Norrell’s who just sits at home and reads books all day.
There aren’t a whole lot of fireworks and explosions, but the excellent writing and intriguing rewrite of history make for a unique and pleasurable reading experience. This is a charming story, written for people who are fans of prose, fantastical mystery, and well rounded characters. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is one of the best standalone fantasy’s I’ve read, and it comes highly recommended.