Adam's Reviews > Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
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Dec 28, 09

bookshelves: fantasy-sci-fi
Read in December, 2009

"It is all very well in fairy-tales to ask, 'Who is the fairest of them all?' But in reality no magic, fairy or human, could ever be persuaded to answer such an imprecise question."

"Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" is many things, but one thing it is *not* is "for everyone." It's primarily a fantastical alternate history (complete with footnotes), but at times it reads more like a Gothic romance or a fairy tale (the quote above notwithstanding). The story starts out rather slowly, and the pacing for the most part ranges between "leisurely" and "glacial"--though there are stretches of tension that border on "frantic"--but very little is completely extraneous; everything contributes to building the world and advancing the plot. The prose, while at times a bit dry, is consistently good, and sometimes downright astounding (including some of the most striking depictions of madness I've ever read).

I've heard "Strange" called "the adults' Harry Potter," which is at best a shallow approximation of the truth. There are superficial similarities--namely a student learning magic in a world that looks like our own but with spells and fantastic creatures--but to reduce the two works to these similarities is to do them both a great disservice. (Besides, Harry Potter has plenty to offer adults in its own right.)

One of the biggest differences between "Potter" and "Strange" is in the ways they use magic. And since discussing that seems as good a way as any to move this review along, I think I'll do so.

In "Potter," magic is the wizards' substitute for technology, used in every moment of every day for every task. Magic is flashy, ubiquitous, and described in detail (you could reproduce many of the words and gestures yourself). With a few important exceptions, magic is largely utilitarian, just as technology is for us. Magic never completely loses its feeling of "otherness," but after a few books of animated candies, talking portraits, and teenage spell-slingers, it starts to feel almost ordinary.

Magic in "Strange" is one tool among many, and a specialized tool at that; it never takes the place of existing methods, being reserved for tasks that existing methods could not achieve. (Magic helps the army win battles, but spells are rarely used to attack directly.) But magic is not just a tool to be used, and this is the most significant point of difference. Magic in "Strange" is mysterious: we are given the names of some spells and see some in action, but Clarke devotes much less attention to the mechanics of spell-casting than does Rowling. Magic is a force to be confronted with respect; though it is never personified, it almost seems alive, as active in the world as "fate" or "destiny." It is never predictable, and it never feels mundane.

This different texture is exemplified in the inhabitants of the two stories. The world of Harry Potter is full of amazing creatures, but for the most part they work like alternatives to normal animals, just as magic is an alternative to technology. In contrast, the faeries of "Strange" are truly alien and inscrutable, no matter how human they look.

To sum up, I would say that in "Potter" magic is a part of life, while in "Strange" magic is a part of the very world itself. And that's why I had to give "Jonathan Strange" 5 stars; Susanna Clarke has made magic magical in a way that few contemporary authors have. This is not at all to denigrate "Potter" (I happen to love those books, too), but "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" is a very different kind of fantasy. The book is not without its flaws, but it is nevertheless a remarkable book.

Whatever else it may be, it's the best Gothic alternate-history fairy tale I've ever read.
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