The book truly deserves its reputation as one of the greatest fantasy books ever written. Beagle is a master of prose, using highly ecovative language...moreThe 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.(less)
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 detrimen...moreThe 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"]>(less)