The 1000-page doorstopper Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is easily one of the best books I have read this year. Its length should not be a detrimenThe 1000-page doorstopper Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is easily one of the best books I have read this year. Its length should not be a detriment to you, it is a definite bonus.
Regarding its scope, the only book that immediately comes to mind, that I would compare it to, would be The Lord of the Rings – In that it attempts (and succeeds) to imbue England with a unique mythology and a whole history of magic of its own.
People wary of footnotes beware: Footnotes is exactly the means this book employs en masse to make the magical seem mundane, like it has always been a part of history, and the mundane a bit more magical.
This effect is achieved by putting biographical info about famous historic figures, or architectural information about real places right next to fictional bibliographical notes and references to equally fictional accounts of abductions into fairyland.
I understand the readers who found the large amount of footnotes distracting, and detracting, but I enjoyed most of the made up little folk tales, poems and songs quoted in this fashion, and felt like they added a lot of atmosphere and weight to the book.
Neither did I feel they added to the book meandering more than it should. Granted, the plot moves at a very leisurely pace, and yes, granted, the book didn’t suck me in until 40 or 50 pages in, but the unique writing style kept me intrigued enough to keep going until I fell in love with the characters and setting. Once that happened I delighted in every page about the seemingly mundane things the characters did, simply because I enjoyed the time I spent with them so much.
Even characters that you did not know what to think of at all when you first met them become either endearing at one point, or so loathsome that either way you cannot help but develop strong feelings about them.
Characters and setting are clearly the strengths of this book. It is very character-driven. The plot of the whole book could possibly summarised as “guy summons fairy for personal gain disguised as altruism, and consequently ruins the lives of innocent (and some not so innocent) people”. The rest of the book describes the lives and troubles of a group of people influenced by this action, in seemingly meandering, sometimes only very loosely connected chapters.
And it is wonderful!
It was arguably a bold move to write the first volume with Mr Norrell as its focus. It would not have made much sense to do otherwise considering the plot structure, but Mr Norrell is clearly the far, far, far less sympathetic of the two eponymous main characters: small minded, cowardly, arrogant, and even a bit anti-social. It is something of a disappointment, opening a book, wanting to read about fantastic, wild magic, and then being stuck with stuffy Norrell.
Luckily the book knows exactly how to handle such a character:
The book manages to convincingly emulate a Regency period writing style befitting its historical setting on every page. And when people compare the writing in this book to Austen they do not only mean similar turns of phrase, oh no: A witty irony permeates the text, constantly, if subtly, mocking its own characters. Delightful!
Our second main character is much more likable: He is excitable, social, shows a far greater range of emotions and even falls in love at one point. While Norrell remains a static (if well-rounded and therefore interesting and certainly not flat) character throughout, Mr Strange undergoes quite a bit of character development: from a slightly over-confident, but endearing young man to a veritable Byronic hero and back.
But not only our two (anti-)heroes are well developed and insanely exciting to read about: If you don’t feel for Stephen Black or poor Lady Pole at some point, you don’t have a heart. Their suffering is never described so sappy and over the top that it turns into melodrama. The characters stay relatable even in their impotence and misery. It is a rare thing that characters forced into passive and reactionary behaviour stay as interesting and cause the reader to be as invested in their fate over so many pages.
And then there is the supporting cast, of very active, but also very strange characters: Just what is the background of Vinculus or Childermass? How does Mr Segundus keep showing up and will he ever be allowed to be successful at anything?
These characters and these questions are what will keep you turning page after page obsessively, even when the plot itself appears to scarcely move forward.
However, I must say it felt like the third volume, in parts, did not always manage to deliver the same quality of the first two volumes. The narrative tone became more serious. There were less ironic asides in the text and less fanciful folktales in the footnotes. The principal new supporting characters of the volume, the Greysteels, never appeared to me as wonderfully enchanting and lifelike as the rest of the characters. Doctor Greysteel seemed a bit too conveniently wealthy and well connected; aunt Greysteel a little too bland; And Flora a bit too good and perfect.
They simply did not have the charm of an exasperated, but optimistic Mr Segundus, foiled at every turn; or a mysterious snarky Childermass. Let alone the page presence of the Duke of Wellington, as only one example (but certainly the most impressive and important) of very effectively employed historical characters.
Connected with its use of historical characters is one of my greatest problems with this book. No, “problems” sounds too negative. It is more ambivalent. Heck, even ambivalent has a couple of very negative associations in English. Let me put it like this: I am of two minds in regards to the magic used in this setting:
1) I love that this is wild, unpredictable fairy magic. Drawn from the land, from nature. Not even the magicians can tell with certainty whether a spell will work and what might go wrong with it. This is all very Peter S. Beagle and I love it! The magic in this work is basically limitless. All powerful. The only limits it is subject to are the morals of its wielder.
2) Even better, this latter aspect is explored extensively with the consequences of magical resurrection. The first of these we encounter in the book is also the bone of contention that sets the main plot into motion. How wonderful!
The book is essentially a very morally grey tale, and the it explores this theme by its characters’ treatment of magic: Is magic helpful or harmful to humanity? And how far are the people who think of it as beneficial prepared to go to bring it back? Do ends justify the means? And then we have the main antagonist, who follows a moral code entirely removed from our own: can we still call him a villain then, evil?
3) However, the magic actually employed by our main characters right until the end, proves to be far less spectacular than it would at first appear. Even though Strange is employed as Wellington’s personal “Merlin” during the Peninsular War and the Belgian campaign, the war with Napoleonic France is hardly changed. Every battle ends as it did in history. Where is the reality shattering aspect of the book’s magic here?
Why choose a historical setting for your fantasy novel, if the addition of magic doesn't change anything? Why insert your characterst into historical events, if the events still progress the same as in our reality? If all the characters do is enable these events to happen, that happened just fine all on their own their magic cannot really be all that magical, can it?
Perhaps this is a point the text is trying to make: We are told again and again by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair that our English magicians are barely scraping the surface of what magic is capable of in this setting. Thus it is not surprising that their magic, as flashy and impressive it may appear to the other human characters, does not change history.
However, at one point the gentleman himself employs fairy magic, aka the true, powerful magic, to make an event happen that occurred just like this in our own history (view spoiler)[the death of Lord Byron (hide spoiler)].
Thus the addition of both kinds of magic - wielded by man or fairy - did not achieve to change a single thing in history. I am absolutely no friend of this kind of storytelling. It demeans both the magical aspects of the book as well as the historical aspects: On the one hand, it is as if the book were to say that people would never have got anything done without magic. It is like one of these conspiracy theories claiming the pyramids simply had to have been built by aliens, because humanity could never achieve something so wondrous on their own.
On the other hand these plots make their magical aspects look far less magical, far less impressive, far less interesting and fun than they could be. Why bother with adding magic to a setting at all, if the magic is never used to do anything important that could not have been accomplished without magic?
It is a waste of magic!
Still, for the most part I liked how the Wars were incorporated into the plot. Strange’s time with Wellington’s armies make up some of my favourite chapters from the book. His ill-fated experiments with dark magic to support the British cause, and his attempts to socialise with both soldiers and officers provided the book with brilliant opportunities for character development, and a lot of the scenes set in the war camps, during the battles, and especially the dinner after the battle of Waterloo enable the text to create very powerful images for the reader. And isn’t that exactly what a good book is supposed to do?
Also, apart from the confusion I tried to describe with point 3, I like how the book introduced its magic as something wild, even nasty in the wrong hands, but most importantly: morally neutral.
And I love that its elves and fairies are presented as the decidedly inhuman, unpredictable, powerful creatures of many a northern European folktale, who one day might help a magician do their magic, but always ask for a price. Who kidnap children, poison livestock, and generally wreak havoc whenever they feel like it, but they might also offer gifts and help to any person they have taken a fancy too. In my personal opinion this alien behaviour and way of thinking removed from human morality is the best way to write fairies.
In the end, despite my small misgivings, the third and last volume manages to tidy up its plot threads very neatly. Every supporting character of any significance gets their ending, leading up to the touching, but fittingly weird, bitter-sweat fate of our main characters.
I was stuck, not able to decide whether this was a four star or a five star read, but eventually settled on five stars, as a reward for the creative setting alone, and the courage to create a fantasy with limitless, wild, unpredictable magic, which is something that has fallen out of favour with a lot of fantasy authors lately.
(in addition, I simply love how great the shiny 3-volume edition looks on my shelf ;) )["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The book truly deserves its reputation as one of the greatest fantasy books ever written. Beagle is a master of prose, using highly ecovative languageThe book truly deserves its reputation as one of the greatest fantasy books ever written. Beagle is a master of prose, using highly ecovative language to create powerful images for the readers, from places untouched by the seasons passing to spiders weeping, that speak of the brittleness of material wealth, of aging, of mortality in heart-achingly beautiful ways.
You understand why Beagle claims to have found it hard to write the book. I think bitter-sweet is the best way to describe the book. And it's making me get unbearably sappy, as you can see, so I better stop gushing now....more
Der Erzählstil in diesem Band ist um einiges konventioneller als noch im Vorgänger. Fort sind die Briefe und Tagebucheinträger. Stattdessen wird Fort Der Erzählstil in diesem Band ist um einiges konventioneller als noch im Vorgänger. Fort sind die Briefe und Tagebucheinträger. Stattdessen wird Fortunas Fluch aus ganz herkömmlichen Erzählperspektiven berichtet: Einmal aus der Sicht von Stella, einem Charakter, den wir noch nicht kannte, aus der Ich-Perspektive, und zum anderen von Graf Trubic, dem wir schon in Des Teufels Maskerade begegnet sind, in einem Mix aus einer personalen und einer neutralen Ansicht: Zwar folgt dieser zweite Erzählstrang Felix und nur Felix, aber die Erzählperspektive ist zu distanziert als dass man wirklich die ganze Zeit über in seinen Gedanken stecken würde.
Diese Distanz von der Handlung konnte man auch schon in Des Teufels Maskerade zeitweise schmecken, sie passt zu dieser personalen Erzählperspektive aber noch ein Stück besser.
Etwas konventioneller ist dann auch die Handlung ausgefallen - für einen Phantastikroman wohlgemerkt. Was einfach nur bedeutet, dass die Bodenständigkeit des ersten Bandes etwas aufgegeben wurde und die phantastischen Elemente diesmal deutlich, wirklich deutlich (!) zahlreicher auftreten: Feen, Tore in eine Parallelwelt, Geister, die in Metallautomaten stecken, Zaubersprüche, und ein größerer Auftritt der beiden Drachen (view spoiler)[(Was passiert jetzt eigentlich mit dem Alten Drachen, nachdem seine Tochter auf der anderen Seite ist? Ich will eine Fortsetzung, verdammt!) (hide spoiler)] gestalten das phantastische Aufgebot diesmal etwas klassischer - Aber doch wirkt nichts wie müde aufgegossen. Tatsächlich dachte ich mir an einigen Stellen tatsächlich "das liest man in der Fantasy zu selten" - etwa, so nette Worldbuilding-Erkenntnisse, wie, dass es in der Feenwelt keine Gemeinsprache gibt (was man sicher auch als Seitenhieb auf unzählige andere Fantasywerke verstehen kann). Die Charaktere stellen sich solche und andere intelligente Fragen, die einem in der Phantastik nicht alltäglich über den Weg laufen.
Ebenfalls erhöht wurde der Actiongehalt, aber auch die Bodenständigkeit des großen Handlungsbogens wurde etwas aufgehoben: Diesmal war die Weltordnung im Kaiserreich - und vielleicht sogar die Welt - doch ein bisschen bedroht. Nun ja, irgendwie muss man den suizidalen Gehorm und die Opferbereitschaft unseres Grafen ja begründen. Die letzten großen Konflikte des Buches sind dann aber wieder die sehr persönlichen: Dejan geht unglaubliche Risiken ein um Felix mal wieder aus der Patsche zu helfen. Einerseits mag man ihn schütteln, andererseits ist man einfach fasziniert von dieser komplizierten Beziehung (Fortsetzung bitte!). Zumindest bei mir haben all diese Kniffe wunderbar funktioniert: etwa die letzten hundert Seiten über konnte ich das Buch noch weniger aus der Hand liegen, als das beim Vorgänger der Fall war - auch wenn daran natürlich zum Teil die Vorarbeit Schuld ist, die der erste Band geleistet hat. Schließlich habe ich die Hälfte dieser Charakter schon durch einen 500-Seiten Roman begleitet! Da hängt man an diesen Herzchen einfach schon mehr dran als noch im Einführungsband.
Das soll aber keineswegs heißen, dass sich das Buch bloß als schnöde Fortsetzung lohnt. Auch die neue Ich-Erzählerin, Stella, konnte ich gleich ins Herz schließen und hätte nichts dagegen noch mehr über sie (view spoiler)[und ihren Feenvater (hide spoiler)] zu erfahren (Fortsetzung bitte!).
Ach, und es gibt so ein paar Themen, mit denen kann man mich, gerade was das Fantasygenre, angeht immer locken. Eines davon ist das Voynich-Manuskript. Das ist auch so ein Grund, wieso dieser Band ganz viele Pluspunkte bei mir gesammelt hat. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I have trouble getting excited about villains, even bright and dazzling supervillains. I'm more of a boring, shining heroes type of gal. But for someI have trouble getting excited about villains, even bright and dazzling supervillains. I'm more of a boring, shining heroes type of gal. But for some reason I have a soft spot for Doctor Doom. Here is a character that isn't simply an endless source of conflict for the good guys, driven by obscure motives that wouldn't make sense outside of a super-hero setting. Here is a villain with principles, with pride, with discinct flaws and personality traits that make him as a character easily understood on a human level even when his true motivations are hidden beneath masks upon masks and convoluted plots stacked on top of each other. It's also what makes Doctor Doom so distinctively Doctor Doom-y that in the case of this story when he has to secure Doctor Strange's support in such a roundabout fashion, simply because anything else would have been a betrayal of his character. (view spoiler)[The book ending on the implication that everything in this story was simply part of Doctor Doom's plan suits me very well! (hide spoiler)]
Another reason I like Doctor Doom is his Origin story as retold in this book. It's tragic yes. It's the story of a son seeking revenge and release for his dead mother. And still it doesn't turn Doom into a character that is forgiven his villainy. Doctor Doom doesn't want your pity! He doesn't need sympathy points. He's Doctor Doom. That's enough. I also get a kick everytime the comics remember that the poor oppressed people living under Doom's rule love their benevolent dictator. All of these things serve to keep Doom from simply degrading into a black-and-white villain.
And as his primary antagonist in this graphic novel we have Mephisto. Now, Mephisto is another Marvel villain I can enjoy. But for very different reasons: As a devil he is evil incarnate, sure. He commands legions of demons as well as powerful magic. But, again, as the devil, he is also full of tricks and clever words and only a signature away from stealing your soul through a legal contract.
To top it all off our second protagonist, who is forced to aid Doom in his quest by his magic patrons, is Doctor Strange (who also has part of this Origin retold in this). He gets a lot of chances to shine and show off his good sides. Both in terms of mystical power, of course, and simply being a handy ally to have around, but also when it comes to compassion and morals (and of course he's getting himself into some trouble that way). He's a great foil for Doctor Doom.
So, in summary, what does this mean for the book? Good (Origin) story, great protagonists, perfect villain. Add to that my fondness for all main characters involved and you'll understand why this is a clear five star read for me. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This is by far my favourite graphic novel featuring the character. Apparently this is not a common opinion on goodreads, and yes, I accept the complaiThis is by far my favourite graphic novel featuring the character. Apparently this is not a common opinion on goodreads, and yes, I accept the complaints about the plot suffering in favour of style, but I still can't bring myself to lose a bad word about it. It's just so imaginative! The art is simply gorgeous. There isn't a single panel that doesn't look exactly as is should. Expressions, dynamic poses, creative arrangement of text boxes that lead the eye just right... this thing looks fantastic. And there's that fantastic fairy tale flair to the whole affair. Not even the "love at first sight" trope can ruin my fun. And even while I do concede that maybe the story is a bit linear and over too quick once we finally find out what it's all about (because until then there is a lot of "ooh pretty!" sightseeing going on, I admit) I still refuse to call this a bad story. Sometimes the hero loses. Sometimes the hero is ineffectual. And sometimes the hero is nothing the cause for tipping the balance towards catastrophe. The way I read it this is just one of these story's. There just wasn't more to be done than was than and I enjoyed that. It's a very simple story, but that doesn't mean it has to be bad. ...more