Magicians You’ll Love
(A Book Review of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell)
A good word to describe my initial impressions of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, would be “daunting”. This masterwork of historical fantasy, released in 2004, is a thick tome and is written in the deliberately dense prose of the period — with footnotes. The story takes a while to get rolling, and by page 100 you are left to wonder how this can be a fantasy story when there is so little magic in it. We don’t even meet Jonathan Strange until we’re almost a third of the way into the book. But give it time. Give it time.
I know of many fantasy readers (myself sometimes included) who pick what book to read next based on how long it is — for epic fantasies, the longer the better. Books like this are a huge commitment though, and so for a lot of people, the fact that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is over 800 pages long outweighs everything else about it. Does Susanna Clarke tell a good story? Is there any neat magic? If the book is too long for you to get past the first 100 pages, you might never know.
The slow start is all part of the book’s genius. The prose is in period, and the story that Clarke weaves is complicated and highly detailed. She takes the time to establish loads of secondary characters, most who do pop up throughout the book to play critical roles in the plot’s progression. Those of you who can slog through the first fifty pages will be rewarded by a fascinating alternate history of the revival of English magic during the Napoleonic Wars, the contribution of magic made to Lord Wellington’s victories, and the bizarre relationship between Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell. The two men are the odd-couple of magic. Norrell is reclusive and misanthropic, whereas Strange is outgoing. Norrell is a book fiend who jealously guards his secrets, whereas Strange has a natural talent. Norrell wants to keep English magic in a small box, while Strange wants to revel in its rediscovery. And yet the two initially become fast friends — as the only two practicing magicians of the age, with Norrell as dependent on Strange as Strange is to Norrell: master and student.
And for all the parlour room intrigues of Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange’s surroundings, there are moments of genuine horror as well, especially when Strange goes to Portugal to join Wellington in his campaigns, and encounters the unfortunate consequences of some of his spells. Strange’s willingness to barrel into the wonders of his new found magical abilities is contagious, but in many respects we see the reasons behind Mr. Norrell’s frantic caution in reopening the roads between England and Faerie. Though Norrell is something of a loathesome miser, and Strange is impossible not to like; it is a testament to Clarke’s skill that I dread how the break-up is going to affect Norrell.
Then there is the deepening mystery of the representative of the kingdoms of Faerie, whom Norrell was forced to deal with to raise a young woman from the dead. His interferences in the lives of innocents—all the more terrible because he intends them as gifts — are riveting to read, as is the anticipation of his coming conflict with Strange and Norrell.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a fascinating read not only because of itsdaunting thickness, but how well Clarke has taken the time to fully accessorize her story with a detailed history of the fall of English magic, to carefully insert its resurgence with a critical period in real English history, to carefully insert new characters with historic personages and ensure that the reader hardly tells the two apart. To bring us into the lives of the people of the time, make them real, and make us care for them. To make all of their actions make sense. It is a rich and varied meal. Yes, this is a book that requires a lot of investment on the part of the reader, but it is an investment that pays off in the end!
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell might not be for everybody, but I cannot help but recommend this book most highly to those who love epic fantasies. It is the best book I’ve read at the start of 2009, and it will likely I’ll reread — as long as I can find time to read it in between in my other books.