A wonderful and odd alternative-history that is many things at once: a re-invention of the fantasy genre, a reflection on the British character, an in...moreA wonderful and odd alternative-history that is many things at once: a re-invention of the fantasy genre, a reflection on the British character, an investigation into the frivolous debates of academics, a deconstruction of race and gender norms, and sometimes tedious comedy of errors. For the first two thirds, the narrative takes many twists and turns. So many that it is sometimes hard to imagine how all of the pieces will fit together or why it is important to care about a character that seems to only appear briefly and then exist the plot. For instance, the novel opens on a series of English "theoretical" magicians focused on one John Segundus. The narrative stays with this character and his encounters with Gilbert Norrell for about 50-60 pages, only to leave Segundus behind and focus on Norrell. Segundus reappears about 500 pages later only to disappear again. The character then reappears again about 300 pages later towards the end. With hundreds of pages separating the appearance of secondary characters, and even more pages separating important tertiary characters, sometimes the narrative seems to take exceedingly long detours away from the major plot points that drive the novel to its conclusions. But these detours are all a part of Clarke's reflections on different aspects of Englishness, class, status, and academia. It also allows her to weave together multiple different genres into a complex and weird tapestry that is fun and witty, if not purposively unsettling.
The length of the book also allows Clarke to probe the relationship between Norrell and Strange in depth, tracing its many shifts that pull them apart and bring them together in various ways. Being an academic, their relationship is quite evocative of the statement, "why are academic disputes so bitter? Because there is so little at stake." At times it does appear that there is little at stake in the novel (except the winning of the Napoleonic wars). But the novel seems to maintain a sense of subdued drama amidst academic and social tensions, and the promise of a prophecy about to be revealed. The last 250 pages are exciting and a nice change of pace from the first two thirds of the book. The revelation of the prophecy is slightly anti-climatic. But that might also be the point. Anything else would deviate from the British measuredness that characterizes the rest of the novel. At times the novel is more interesting than exciting. But in the end, it is well worth the read and a fascinating combination of fantasy and 19th century British writing styles. (less)