The year is 1806. England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation's past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell, whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country.
Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange.
Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrel. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms that between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.
Susanna Clarke was born in Nottingham in 1959. A nomadic childhood was spent in towns in Northern England and Scotland. She was educated at St Hilda's College, Oxford, and has worked in various areas of non-fiction publishing, including Gordon Fraser and Quarto. In 1990, she left London and went to Turin to teach English to stressed-out executives of the Fiat motor company. The following year she taught English in Bilbao.
She returned to England in 1992 and spent the rest of that year in County Durham, in a house that looked out over the North Sea. There she began working on her first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
From 1993 to 2003, Susanna Clarke was an editor at Simon and Schuster's Cambridge office, where she worked on their cookery list. She has published seven short stories and novellas in US anthologies. One, "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse," first appeared in a limited-edition, illustrated chapbook from Green Man Press. Another, "Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower," was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award in 2001.
She lives in Cambridge with her partner, the novelist and reviewer Colin Greenland.
Sigh, just what we need, another revolutionary, unusual fantasy book by an author with a practiced mastery of tone. When will authors like Clarke realize that what the fantasy genre needs are more pseudo-medieval monomyths that sprawl out into fifteen volumes?
Her magic didn't conveniently solve all of the characters' problems, instead, they wasted time thinking through conflicts and then had to solve them by taking action; how dull is that? The magic was weird, anyways. It didn't have a simplistic, internal system to allow it to act as a one-for-one substitute with technology, it was just all unpredictable and otherworldly and unknowable--how can you even call that 'magic'?
And the characters were overly-complicated. Instead of acting as recognizable archetypes, they were complex, conflicted, and developed as the story progressed. For some reason, they also seemed hesitant to fall back on the default plan of attacking anything that gets in their way, which was probably why this book was so long. I guess they just didn't have a strong enough sense of honor to instantly kill anyone who opposed them.
And then, instead of having her characters laboriously explain how the world worked to each other, she made brief mentions in footnotes, as if she were writing a history. I'm not sure why she made this decision, I often explain to my friends in basic terms how cars and money work in our culture, so it's clear that endless expositionary dialogue is the most realistic way to inform the reader. I mean, I guess you could just have the omniscient narrator tell us everything in detail, that's almost as good.
Come to think of it, this book had a lot of history stuff, it was almost like she had read a whole bunch about the period her book was set in, which is such a waste of time, because if that's what I wanted, I'd just read a history book. I mean sure, the author could take some vague things from a period, but otherwise they should just treat everything as if it were the modern day so it'll make sense. Besides, if she had any errors, she could just remind us that 'it's fiction!', so it's all fake anyways and it's pointless to try to make it seem real.
I guess she thought she was Jane Austen, or something, gradually building a tonal portrait of the world and revealing the characters through details of action and conversation. I don't know why she would try to write like those boring, old, dead authors, they wouldn't have to make us read them in school if they were good.
I should have known it was going to be bad when I saw it had footnotes in it, like a textbook or something, but I tried not to read any of them because I didn't want to accidentally learn some stupid fact (and then be STUCK with it FOREVER), because I'm saving up that brain space to memorize the lineage of the ninth house of the Dragonpriests of Ur, or maybe which incantation can counterspell the splash damage effect of a lesser draconic fireball.
So the whole book, I kept waiting for one of the women to be raped (or at the very least threatened with rape), or maybe enslaved, or for someone to be put in a collar and tortured by a woman in leather, or to be spanked in public as part of some cultural ritual, or to walk through flames while spraying breastmilk everywhere, or some other perfectly normal expression of human sexuality, but don't bother waiting, you'll only be disappointed. Really, the only thing that could have made it worse is if it were illustrated by Charles Vess, like the equally hopeless sequel.
So yeah, basically this book is WAY TOO LONG! I mean, it was totally worth it for me to read the first five twelve-hundred-page books of the Dragonkingspell Cycle (it starts to get good at book six), but that's nothing compared to how much it tried my patience to read this book. I probably wouldn't have been able to finish it if I didn't need something to read while waiting twelve years for Jeb R.R.R. Franzibald to finish book seven.
But I guess if you like a well-researched, historically accurate book that doesn't tell the same, familiar story, doesn't use magic as a plot facilitator, reads like a Gothic novel, slowly builds the story based on psychologically-developed characters, and is obsessed with tone, then this is the book for you! Congratulations.
Otherwise, you can sit around with me and hope the author of our favorite series doesn't die before finishing vol. XVIII of The Epic Magic Sword of the Undead Dragon Throne Saga Duovigintilogy, where we will finally discover whether the badass, outcast, swordmaster, dragonrider assassin prince defeats the great evil, once and for all (with the help of his trusty albino wolf/girlfriend, of course).
Without a doubt the best book I have read this year. I write that without hesitation and with a beaming smile on my face. Incredible. Enthralling. Amazing. The book was over 800 pages long and it did not seem long enough. When I finished the book, I immediately turned out the light and tried to drift off to sleep, because I knew nothing else I did that night was going to top the feeling I got after blowing through the last 100 pages like a madwoman. I want to start it over again, immediately.
The book is like reading Dickens, with the dialogue of Jane Austen, and the best writing of every classic fantasy I've read. All at once. Clarke manages to pay her homage while being entirely original herself. And the pages just keep turning and turning. You almost don't notice as 200 pages go by in less than two hours. This is a book to devour. Again, and again, and again. For those who have never been interested in the fantasy genre before, do not be put off. It's not even about the fantasy, though of course it is a major presence and the plot focuses around it. History geeks: There are three delightful, hilarious appearances by Wellington, George III and Lord Byron, as well as various Cabinet ministers of the time period.
The prose is wonderful, dead-on. Clarke has the ability to shift seamlessly from witty, sarcastic, detached prose and dialogue in the style of Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde:
"These ladies and gentlemen, visitors to the city of Venice, were excessively pleased with the Campo Santa Maria Formosa. They thought the facades of the houses very magnificent- they could not praise them highly enough. But the sad decay which buildings, bridges and church all displayed seemed to charm them even more. They were Englishmen and, to them, the decline of other nations was the most natural thing in the world. They belonged to a race so blessed with so sensitive an appreciation of its own talents (and so doubtful an opinion of any body else's) that they would not have been at all surprised to learn that the Venetians themselves had been entirely ignorant of the merits of their own city- until Englishmen had come to tell them it was delightful."
... and then shift into lines that would do any fantasy author proud: "Spring returned to England. Birds followed ploughs. Stones were warmed by the sun. Rains and winds grew softer, and were fragranced by the scents of the earth and growing things. Woods were tinged with a colour so soft, so subtle that it could scarcely be said to be a colour at all. It was more the /idea/ of a colour- as if the trees were dreaming green dreams or thinking green thoughts."
Those quotes don't do it justice, they were just ones my eyes came across when I randomly opened pages. The writing is just beyond fantastic, to say the least.
That, on top of an intriguing, well developed, /incredibly/ well researched portrait of England at the time of the Napoleonic wars? It manages to cover all the major areas that British literature is known for, all at once, in one book, and do them all justice. Clarke is also able to touch on a lot of serious issues that were present in England at the time: (racial relations, the problems of a hereditary ruling class..) She makes you aware of them as a background, but doesn't push them in your face. It's just another way she's able to make her evocation of the time period that much more perfect.
... I should perhaps have written this review with a greater distance from finishing the novel. But I think I'm justified in doing it now, if only to give an idea of the kind of amazing feeling that the book gives you from reading it and finishing it.
I so wanted to like this book. The idea is just wonderful. I was so pleased for a while to be in that world, a historical England. I love the dialogue and descriptions. And I love the idea of magic in an otherwise real setting, as though it were a normal part of our actual world. But it was so frustrating to read after a while. The footnotes, auuuugh, the footnotes. They were cute at first, because the book is written sort of like a history book from that period. But after a while they were just so long and so unrelated to the main story that they became seriously cumbersome. And just when the story would be getting involved, she'd fast forward 2 years or 10 years and the last part of the story, though unresolved, would be pretty much forgotten. Boooo!
The end was annoying, or rather the way the main characters reacted to it. It's fiction, it's fantasy, but when you're writing about basic human beings who have otherwise behaved consistently throughout the book, and then they react to something in a way you know isn't consistent and isn't how people would act, it pops the bubble of your suspended disbelief and sort of ruins the story. Another annoying thing is that we keep waiting to learn more about why Mr. Norrell acts the way he does, but we never do learn. He's just a pill and that's it. That's poor writing, No motivations for him, no insight into his character. So really he just serves a function in the book that could have been served by an inanimate object.
Overall the book is just filled with too many things that seem to have no point. It's not that they aren't interesting by themselves or couldn't have been made into something wonderful, it's just that they are tossed out there randomly and not connected to anything. In that way, the cold, dispassionate history book style disappoints, because what we really want is a story. We want to care about the characters and see resolution of some kind. Booo!
There will apparently be more books set in this world, but I won't be reading them. It's just too much of a time investment in a seemingly great idea that doesn't pay off.
Although Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell turns out to be a book I dearly love, I'm afraid I can't recommend it to just anyone. Whether you'll like it or not will truly depend on what you expect it to be. If you wish for a fast-paced excitement then this book is probably not for you. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a blend of meticulously researched historical fiction and imaginative fantasy, sprinkled here and there with biting social comedy, and written in a style similar to Austen's, which is, of course, relevant to the age in which the story takes place, the early years of 19th century England. The plot mainly focuses in the revival of magic in England, an art that has been long fallen into disuse but still theoretically studied by many. Among these people two gentlemen who actually practise the art come into the spotlight: the tedious, reclusive Gilbert Norrell and his pupil Jonathan Strange. The story further unfurls with the appearance of a certain silver-haired fairy, Norrell's and Strange's involvements in the Napoleonic Wars, and also the revelation of the prophecy of The Raven King in all its mythical grandeur.
JS & MN is a long, meandering read that needs to be slowly savored, not to be rushed. I started reading it feeling a little bit wary myself,the first hundred pages being undeniably dragging. But I soon came to a certain point where something just clicked, and from there on it was almost impossible to put it down. This book is over 1000 pages long, and yet, as I close the book in completion, I asked myself of how 1000 pages could seemingly be so terribly short.
For me, who end up liking this book, JS & MN is a true charmer, compelling in all its subtlety, imaginative, witty and beautifully written. Clarke has a flair in language use. She employs the right words at all the right moments to make us feel exactly what she intends us to feel, and see exactly what she wants us to see. With this ability at hands she creates a fine balance of myths, magic, history, warfare, politic and mundane domestic life. Clarke treats magic as an object of study in the truest sense. Some parts of the book read like an academic essay, with long studious arguments of why such and such magic can or cannot be done, various citations from the works of great magicians long dead, and insanely lengthy footnotes (which people ever so often think as annoying distractions, yet I found them really fun to read). She also has a perfect grasp about the age in which her characters are living. Thus her writing comes off convincingly like a product of 19th century British literature (though it has the virtue of being more comprehensible), perfectly written with all the old spellings: chuse, sopha, shew, surprize.
Clarke's characterization is definitely one of the best elements in the book. The characters, be it the main protagonists or otherwise, are solidly drawn and interesting, as lovable as they are flawed. Strange, though not someone who is altogether admirable, is charming and generally more likable, and yet narrow-minded Norrell, with all his jealousy and peevishness, feels all too human that I couldn't help but sympathise with him even when I didn't want to.
A literary merit though this book is, please be warned that not everyone will find it fascinating. If you're halfway through the book and it still doesn't pique your interest, put it down then, save your precious time. But if you're halfway through and already been absorbed it's very likely you'll be graced with something that stays with you days and weeks after you finished reading it. I know it did this for me. Definitely one of those rare treats I'd be willingly and gladly re-read each year.
$1.99 Kindle sale, May 18, 2020. I adore and highly recommend this Regency-era fantasy but it definitely isn't everyone's cuppa tea! The bad: It's a doorstopper of a novel, very long and very slow-paced. The good: It's absolutely brilliant, filled with intricate details, REALLY creative. Give it a shot!
Adventures in reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell with my real-life book club (also posted on Fantasy Literature):
Tadiana: This book is like a mashup of Jane Austen, or maybe Charles Dickens, and fantasy, with Regency-era British magicians and charming, vindictive and devious faeries. It creates an incredibly rich, complex and detailed fantasy world; the Raven King mythology is fantastic. The main plotline of this novel deals with the on-and-off friendship between two very different magicians: Mr Norrell, who is bookish, stuffy and reclusive, and Jonathan Strange, who's a younger, charming and impetuous person, and their dealings and troubles with Faerie and other magical places and characters, but there are several subplots intricately woven into this tale. It thoughtfully explores some interesting issues that you wouldn't expect, like the difficulties women, servants and minorities have had in making their voices heard. This is a truly unique and inventive novel. It challenged my brain and fascinated me. I adored it.
Rest of book club: This book is soooo long. Aaand kind of confusing, not to mention slow and boring.
Tadiana: I love the dry humor. The tongue-in-cheek quasi-scholarly footnotes totally crack me up.
Rest of book club: Seriously, what is the deal with those bizarre footnotes? They're just weird.
Tadiana: Imma buy this in hardback and keep it forever.
Jesus Christ, this book reads like molasses. It's like the author took every book from her Brit Lit class and consciously tried to make it wordier and longer than all of them combined. I get the point she wants to make, but I honestly could not get past the second chapter.
It also was so incredibly pretentious. The whole thing has this superior feel, like having a conversation with someone who is absolutely reassured of how much smarter they are than you. It left me feeling bored, stupid, depressed and confused, and those are four words that I do not like to associate with reading.
If you really want to plow through a novel like this, just go read some Charles Dickens. You get used to him after a few pages and you start to like him after the first chapter. Clarke, however, never redeems herself.
Book like this are not written anymore. This feels like it should have been published in the nineteenth century and not because of the obvious setting, but because of the remarkable writing style. It is very similar to Austen’s that I’m sure she might have been delighted by Clarke’s work. Well, maybe. But, either way novelists like this do not exist in this age, unfortunately. The writing has the feel of a classic, but the plot has the feel of a thoroughly charming fantasy.
This is a work of complete magical genius
Indeed, she has written it in the pastiche style of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens; she has used their language style, narrative techniques and masterful characterisations to create a novel that is a superb work of fantasy. If Austen or Dickens strayed away from their realism novels then this is what it could look like. Susanna Clarke is an absolute wonderful writer. I wish there were more writers like her. Words, literally, cannot express my reverence for this novel: I simply adore it.
The plot is incredible. Imagine an England in the nineteenth century, not much unlike the real one, that is prosperous, full of gentleman and completely devoid of all magic and fantasy: it reeks of realism. The inhabitants are offended by the idea of magic being reputable; the very thought is inconceivable. Magic is not respectable because the streets are infested with street performers and fakes that claim to do magic. There are also theoretical magicians who merely study its principals and have never succeeded in the practical side. However, there is one man in England who has spent the last forty years buried under a pile of books. His name is Mr Norrell, and he is the greatest magician of the age.
A friendship of necessity
Norrell is a bibliophile; he is a book hoarder and is quite possible the biggest bookworm that has ever lived. (I give him a silent bow.) He has devised his own system of magic that is reputable and gentleman like: it is modern magic. He keeps his perilous, and beloved, tomes to himself. He fears that such deadly books will be misused, but he also wants to be the only man in England that knows their secrets. Behind his mask of propriety and professionalism there is a soul that longs for the ancient magic that he detest so vehemently. This magic is powered by fate, and demands that two magicians, not one, must restore magic to dreary old England.
“I have a scholar's love of silence and solitude. To sit and pass hour after hour in idle chatter with a roomful of strangers is to me the worst sort of torment.”
The second magician is called Johnathan Strange, and he becomes Norrell’s pupil much to the old man’s delight and dismay. Where Norrell is cautious, studious, and self-conceiting Strange is reckless, open to new knowledge and practical. He is eager to push the boundaries of his tutors limited approach to magic; he is eager to use the magic Norrel detests. He fights in the Napoleonic war to bring magic into high repute whereas his tutor stays in his library doing weather magic to dog the French. Strange is young and energetic, but he also is practical to the needs of his country.
“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never would.”
It is no wonder then that England prefers Strange to his tutor. However, only with his mentor can Strange attempt to restore English magic. The two are complete opposites, and only side by side can the opposing magicians restore magic to a dreary and bleak England: only together can they bring back the Raven King. The relationship between the two men, for me, really elevated this novel to the next level. They begin as student and tutor, but end up as equals. The dynamics change between the two as student outshines tutor, and threatens to destroy everything he represents.
I think by setting this is an England that is realistic, and very true to the actual one, Clarke pulls at the heart strings of many a reader. I think this has affected so many readers for the same reason the Harry Potter series did. Clarke, like Rowling, shows us a world that is dry and boring; it is infested by those that have no affinity for magic. Then underneath it all they both reveal worlds that are enchanting and magical. Indeed, most people long for a sense of the fantastic and escape from the mundane realism that is their life. Well, at least I do. Clarke, like Rowling, offers a glimpse of a world that is like our own, only better.
Moreover, the footnotes and magical text references, used by Clarke, help to add further weight to this feeling. These make the novel seem academic, and reflect the age in which it was set, they give a sense of actuality behind the fantastical. Some of the footnotes are huge, and they do interrupt the narrative. However, this is a more effective means of delivery the history of such a beautiful world than, for example, having the characters reproduce is verbatim in speech. I think it’s a much less awkward way, and creates the sense that this world could exist, should exist.
In addition to this, the structure of the novel reflects the age in which it represents. The novel is divided into three volumes, and towards the end Clarke utilises the hugely popular, and utterly brilliant, epistolary means of storytelling. Both demonstrate a norm of novel writing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which reflects the novel structure associated with the time. The language Clarke uses is akin to the wonderful Jane Austen, and the underline sarcasm, like in Austen’s works, is apparent. Indeed, Clarke continuously mocks Napoleon Bonaparte; I disagree with her assessment of him, however, the opinion she wields reflects that of the English at the time, so in a sense it enhances the feeling afore mentioned.
I adore this book
This book is simply brilliant. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to articulate exactly how wonderful it is. If I had magic I could show you, but, alas, I am a mere theoretical magician. Seriously though, I get emotional when I think about the sheer excellence of this book; I’ve read this twice now and in all honesty I can say that I immediately want to read it again. Strange and Norrel are two of the most interesting, and well written, characters I’ve ever read about. They are both right in their arguments, and both wrong. It’s such a unique and memorable relationship.
“There is nothing else in magic but the wild thought of the bird as it casts itself into the void. There is no creature upon the earth with such potential for magic. Even the least of them may fly straight out of this world and come by chance to the Other Lands. Where does the wind come from that blows upon your face, that fans the pages of your book? Where the harum-scarum magic of small wild creatures meets the magic of Man, where the language of the wind and the rain and the trees can be understood, there we will find the Raven King.”
I could only ever give this book five stars, I’d give it more if I could.
Bravo Susanna Clarke!
This book has quite literally floored me. If anybody takes a single recommendation of mine remotely seriously, then take this one because this novel is incredible!
If a novel of nearly 900 pages can be summarised in one phrase then Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell may, I think, be described as a stately, sly, witty, intricate, comic retelling of Dracula, with digressions and very little blood.
Count Dracula takes life from beautiful young ladies, enslaves them, enchants them, enraptures them, steals them away, into his own twilight (oops, sorry) vampire world – they become something other than what they were, undead, not alive yet not dead, creatures which do his bidding (the company I work for does something quite similar so it appears to be legal). In Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a fairy does exactly the same thing, but there's no blood involved, just a little magic. In Dracula it takes quite a while before the heroes realise what’s happening to their gorgeous young women (in both books the gorgeousness is emphasised, I do like that, you know, since they're imaginary why can't they be drop dead too? hmm, probably the wrong phrase). But compared with Mr Strange and Mr Norrell, the Dracula boys are quick on the uptake. Because we’re past page 600 before the penny drops in this one.
THE ARBITRARINESS OF MAGIC
One of my problems with this giant enfolding fog of a book is the nature of magic itself. In Dracula Van Helsing lays out the rules about vampires for the readers – they can do this but they can’t do that; sunlight, shape-shifting; silver; crosses; all of that. He later wrote the Observer Book of Vampires (Heinemann, 1911) and it's all in there. The rules are the rules. Many young leary vampires have been struck off for thinking that they were too cool for rules.
Governing committee : You were seen buying maximum factor sunblock in Superdrug three Saturdays in a row.
Young cool vampire : Yeah well, my girlfriend wants me to go camping with her family next week.
Governing committee : Under section 3 subsection 2 paragraph B I hereby strike you off the official list of vampires.
YCV : But but
GC : Beat it, kid, don't waste our time. This is a serious business.
But there are no rules for magic - at least, none discernable. The rule seems to be - sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Mr Strange goes to war to help the English fight Napoleon Boney. In Portugal he is able to create good roads where only mud tracks exist for the English Army to march down. Later he is able to make magical hands arise from the earth and entangle the French troops; but he doesn’t do any magic to prevent the English troops being massacred by cannonballs and artillery – what, no magical winds available to blow the cannonballs off course? But pardon, Mr Strange, elsewhere don’t you say that weather magic is the easiest sort to do? So whyever not? Well, we are not told. He never thinks of doing it, never thinks of alleviating the English troops’ suffering. Susanna Clark says in an interview that she wished to show that people’s romantic or over-optimistic notions of magic were to be disappointed by the unsatisfactoriness of her version of magic. I take that argument, it’s a good one, but it does not solve the difficulty of arbitrariness and the lack of any rules or boundaries. When anything can happen, and then at some other point, for unknown reasons, the same thing can’t happen, the element of tension simply disappears in a cloud of smoke – poof! As if by magic.
I thought that the villain in this novel was certainly suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Alas that the story took place in the 1810s, when mood stabilising medication had not yet been developed. If the gentleman with the thistledown hair had been prescribed Carbamazepine, Lamotrigine or Lithium I am quite sure the whole thing with the ladies would have never happened and the misunderstanding and antagonisms between him and the two magicians would never have arisen in the first place.
It has been said this novel is like Dickens. It is not. Those who say that have not read Dickens. Do not believe them. It is said that this novel is like Jane Austen. Okay, with your left eye closed and your right eye squinched up and tilting the novel at a slight angle, then yes, it is. But don’t say it too loudly or Jane Austen fans might beat you lightly with their lace doileys.
The good news : the story definitely picks up around page 650. That is the good news.
SHOULD YOU READ THIS BOOK?
For readers thinking about giving this one a go , you should know a few things. Half of this novel is quite a bit longer than most other novels, so unless you like slow, laborious build-ups (this is not the magical equivalent of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill), intricate fake-scholarly footnotes recounting mad details about non-existent books, people, folk-tales, all pseudo-erudite tomfoolery calculated to flesh out the magical world whilst at the same time giving the reader many large winks along the lines “aren’t we having some scholarly fun? Isn’t this a thinking person’s hoot?”; unless you like many pages spent fretting about whether Mr Norrell will lend Mr Strange a particular book (this will-he won’t-he theme gets a little tiresome, so I’ll let you know – big plot spoiler - he doesn’t – now you can skip those bits); unless you like your reading to be languid, leisurely, luxurious, learned, leavened with loopy legerdemain and long, long, long, this may not be the one for you.
In the beginning was a preface, and then an introduction, followed by some exposition, and then an opening.
Looking through the reviews, it appears many people either adore it or hate it. Frankly, I'm in neither camp, because I can't work up enough emotion to care. It took a long time to become interested, and I finally had to resort to a strategy of reading only a few chapters at a time, setting free any expectation that this was a book that would pull me in and never let me go. It became the perfect book to read before bed, a non-habit forming Ambien that avoided unpleasant dreams while lulling me into sleep. The language and structure of the tale is a formidable barrier to easy enjoyment; this is Great Expectations, the original, uncut director's copy, thick enough in mass market paperback to soak with water and turn into a paper-mache brick. The final obstacle to delight is the general distastefulness of Mr. Norrell. This is improved somewhat when Jonathan Strange enters the tale, and for a while I was able to read without Mr. Sandman paying a visit.
I found much of the tale to be philosophizing about the character of England, and the distinctions between the north and the south tedious as they are somewhat non-accessible and lack relevance to the non-English. In some ways, I suspect the cultural conflict might resemble American regional conflicts, but it takes a talented author to make the conflict relevant across oceans and time. I understand Clarke is doing; I just lack interest in the subject matter, so the voice starts to sound a lot like the adults in Charlie Brown. Muhua wa wa...
Unfortunately, the writing style and its take on various popular Victorian styles is monotonous for me. Although I enjoy the 19th century British mysteries, and Wodehousian humor, Clarke has neither the tightly woven mystery nor the snappy dialogue that keeps me interested in those forms. When it comes to writing style, I can see why some people would find her writing interesting, especially if they are fans of the time period; it just fails to resonate for me in the way it is presented. The footnotes are occasionally amusing as they frequently contain opinionated commentary. I read recently that Clarke wrote the story in "bundles" and ended up working at fitting them together. In retrospect, this might explain some of the jumps in plotting and setting, and account for the way plots were set down and then picked up a hundred pages later.
I was pleased to discover the magical or supernatural elements play a larger role than I expected from reading other reviews. One of the characters and plotlines I struggled with was that of the "white-haired gentleman." While it certainly brought magical elements to the story, I felt like he was a distraction and never fully woven into the plot. His obsession with Stephen, was particularly odd, and I never felt like I understood it's connection to Norrell and Strange.
Clarke does sprinkle gentle humor throughout the story that occasionally caused twitters or giggles. One of the first lines to make me laugh:
"He was so clean and healthy and pleased about everything that he positively shone--which is only to be expected in a fairy or an angel but is somewhat disconcerting in an attorney."
If a writer is going to publish a book this big (thousand plus pages) then it must be very good, or the readers will never know about the thousands plus pages beyond the heft as they toss it aside or by the thickness as it is put back on the shelf.
This book is that good.
Using language correct for the time period (Napoleonic Wards era, early 1800s) and richly complex characterizations reminiscent of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, author Susanna Clarke has crafted a gem. It was the winner of and nominated for a host of awards like the Hugo, the Man Booker, Nebula, Locus, Guardian First Book, World Fantasy, Mythopoeic Fantasy, Book Sense and Cena Akademie SFFH. High accolades all and topped off with a gushing quote from none other than Neil Gaiman, who said: "Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years."
So what is all the fuss about?
Clarke has created an alternate history where magic is an excepted and realized fact of English history and life. In this reality, a magician king had ruled Northern England for centuries and then disappeared, and two unassuming and scholarly types go their own way in trying to restore magic to England.
To create a surprisingly seamless magical (pun intended) realism, Clarke employed the inclusion of or reference to the following: Francisco Goya, Frances Burney, William Beckford, Monk Lewis, Lord Byron, and Ann Radcliffe; publisher John Murray; politicians Lord Castlereagh and George Canning; the Duke of Wellington and the crazy as a Marsh Hare, King George III.
All that and an unnamed faerie king with issues.
I will admit here that I went to Wikipedia and searched for the Raven King and John Uskglass and felt like an idiot when I realized she had landed me hook, line and sinker.
A brilliant work and a must read for fans of the fantasy genre.
While I was reading the second half of this book it occurred to me that I don't actually need to read any other novel ever again, I could just read this one book over and over again for the rest of my days and when the Grim Reaper calls I shall have this book clutched possessively in my stiff, unyielding fingers.
Momentary insanity of course, but it is indicative of the devotion I feel toward this book. With in the first page or two I was already feeling very friendly toward this book because of the prose. Ms. Clarke seems to be channelling Jane Austen by way of Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, Hans Christian Andersen, with some dark sprinkles of Poe and Lovecraft. I grew increasingly fond of the book page by page until I was ready to put it on a pedestal and worship it by the time I reached in end.
The basic outline of the story is that it concerns the titular Jonathan and Mr. Norrell. Mr Norway brings magic back to England, takes on Mr. strange as his pupil, the two gentlemen later become rivals. Their interrelationship is the backbone of this long book that features wonderful characters, humour, sadness, heroism, redemption and magic, not to mention non-stop dancing and cameos by Napoleon Bonaparte Lord Byron and crazy King George III.
Normally when I read a long book of more than 700 pages in length I like to pause at about half way through, pick up a shorter book to read to the finish and go back to the long book. For me it helps to relieve the impatience from spending so much time with just one book. However, with this book* it is impossible, I could not extricate myself from it. I am a slowish reader and I spent about two weeks living and breathing this book and now that I have finish it I feel a little disoriented. Also, I tend to feel more comfortable reading SF than fantasy, the problem I personally have with a lot of fantasy is suspension of disbelief when magic manifests in some way. The pacing of this book is so perfect and the magic so skillfully and gradually woven into the story that I no problem throwing disbelief out the window and just settle down and immerse into this magical version of England.
Overpraise this book? Impossible! _______________________ * I read the Kindle edition, the footnotes are hypertext links that jump to the back of the book (after the novel is ended), I had to ensure that I bookmark the page before I click on any footnote otherwise it would have been difficult to find my way back.
Footnotes(!) • A footnote about the footnotes. I am tempted to knock off one star for the over abundance of footnotes, I am personally not keen on them as they interrupt the flow of the story for me. However, it would be ill-bred of me to use my own preferences as the standard for quality assessment. The fact is that lots of people like them and I think that justify their existence; not to mention that they are as beautifully written as the main body of the book. It is also worth mentioning that you can skip them entirely and still follow the story without missing a beat. I skimmed them and I intend to go back to read them all. Besides, this book deserves at least a billion stars rating and Goodreads can only cope with five, so if I did knock off one star nobody would notice.
• According to Wikipedia Susanna Clarke is working on another book set in the Strange & Norrell universe (so the word sequel may be inappropriate). Don't hold your breath waiting for it though because it took her ten years to write Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by the time she publishes this second novel there may be flying cars and hoverboards on the street.
I suppose whether you love this book or hate it will depend on how you feel about 19th century novels. In Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Susanna Clarke decided to emulate the style, the pace and the vocabulary/orthography of that time in a way that would have made Charles Dickens proud. It’s a period piece with magic, I suppose.
But you see, I enjoy some 19th century novels *despite* them being such, not *because* of it.
Once I got past all the “chuse” (!), “shewed”(!!!) and “sopha” (!!!) iterations, I still had to try to process the glacial pace and meandering nature of the story — and although I’m very partial to meanderings of Stephen King, here I just wanted so badly to get to any kind of a point, hoping for an editor’s red pen to trim some of the vignettes and descriptions. The heavy reliance on period-appropriate tell-not-show, the distasteful and often dull characters that built up my irritation (Norrell has a special place in boring hell), and the general slow monotony of the narrative — all that kept me at a distance, never allowing me to engage with the story.
If not for sheer stubbornness and terminal ability to DNF I would have not cared to keep picking it up. (Yup, I know, it’s a problem; shut up!)
It must be what getting stuck in a bog feel like. You can’t get out even if you’re not a fan of the experience.
Had the 500 pages of bloat been cut out of this kitten-squisher, it could have been pretty great. And yes, about 80% of those unnecessary footnotes would have to go, too, since most of them were just extra filler (yeah, Clarke needed to learn from Pratchett on how to do it right). But despite all the room for bloat quite a few bits that would have made better sense to include were left on the cutting-room floor, apparently, leading to the jarring cuts among the bloat.
Not to say there weren’t moments of brilliance — Mr Strange going to war was witty and funny, and Stephen in the end was amazing — but these were few and far in between, and ultimately just not enough.
This book tired me out and left me cold.
2 stars (sorry, Nastya, I tried). To see Clarke get to the point much faster, try Piranesi.
——————— (I was undecided on the final rating for this one until I just watched “12 Angry Men” and saw how easily a story can be told simply and concisely, with zero bloat. And that cemented my feelings about this 1000-pages kitten-squisher.)
the hero of this novel, Mr. Norrell, is in many ways a stranger in a strange land, uncomfortable with base emotions and disappointed with the shabbiness and inadequacies of others... yet always yearning for true companionship. a dignified, erudite, and refined gentleman; quietly soulful and elegantly restrained; commanding in his encyclopedic knowledge of the magical arts.
the other character, a fey and unreliable sort apparently named "Jonathan Strange", offers fleeting friendship that is quickly frittered away in tawdry misadventure, misplaced romance, and other assorted bits of ill-conceived and juvenile tomfoolery, often abroad, often with a host of questionable characters. even worse, Strange's nascent addictive personality rears its dark dark head, causing all sorts of trouble with various dire characters that were once thought lost in history. fortunately, Mr. Norrell is a stalwart and brave ally, and his careful guidance soon sets things in their natural order - no thanks to the whimsical and unreliable Strange.
an awesome book, one of my favorites. the comparisons with Austen & Dickens have been made repeatedly; i agree. it almost seems silly to review this - it is like some kind of immense edifice, some giant piece of art, or something, that folks should just experience rather than read about. the pacing moves from snail-like and digressive to hallucinatory and lightning fast. the characters are wonderfully complicated. the magic is fascinating. the whole thing is smart and funny and melancholy and charming and just brilliant. plus the footnotes: fantastic! this is a huge novel but i wasn't bored for a second.
This slow burn historical fantasy (it really isn't a proper historical fantasy -- it's really told much more as a straight historical and the fantasy is bonus) is one of the best novels I've read -- ever. Clarke never breaks voice or changes her slow, relentless pacing. It's a novel meant to be savored over the course of a month, not rushed through -- so that you can properly appreciate the rush of the climax.
***wondering why all my reviews are five stars? Because I'm only reviewing my favorite books -- not every book I read. Consider a novel's presence on my Goodreads bookshelf as a hearty endorsement. I can't believe I just said "hearty." It sounds like a stew.****
This book was a chore! While I liked the story, the writing style was not enjoyable at all for me. Also, I am not really sure why everything happened, what exactly happened, and why it took so many words and pages to tell this story.
It started at 5 stars and, as I trudged through the book, there was a slow leak of stars as my interest started to wane. That leak stopped at 2 stars.
oof. okay. this just wasnt for me. its no doubt a feat of a book with evident effort and meticulous detail, but its just not something i really enjoyed reading.
i personally struggle with 19th century literature so, with this being a pastiche of that time periods writing style, themes, and literary devices, i never fully got into this. i think the concept is interesting, so had the narrative been written in a more modern style, my feelings would probably be totally different.
so objectively well-written, but just not my cup of tea. the illustrations were cute, though!
Lifeless After finishing, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the overwhelming feeling was a sense of relief and then puzzlement that I committed so much time to read this. I found the book a great disappointment on various levels, and for once, I have to say that the TV production was so much better than the novel.
The characters were generally uninteresting, including the two main protagonists. The story's timing occurred when magic again surfaced in England, and magicians were unsure of their power. Mr Norell is an academic rather drab character intent on learning his craft from books and manuscripts. His arrogance wants him to be considered England's only legitimate magician. Jonathan Strange is more a practical magician and lends a hand in fighting Napolean. His magic seems almost whimsical, and the English soldiers still die in huge numbers. The plot is so weak that the involvement with the Napoleonic Wars didn't generate much interest. It was all very flat. What can be said is that the detail of the surroundings and story are considerable - even with footnotes to describe minutiae. The setting was okay, and I did feel that the atmosphere of early 19th century England came through well.
I am surprised this book received its praises, and I can only assume that the story's context was a big draw. We all want to believe that magic exists and that somewhere a magician is just waiting to develop the skills handed down from Merlin. If that was to happen, I can only hope that it's NOT to someone like Strange or Norrell and that there would be a superb plot of twists and surprises, with captivating characters to bring it all to life.
I might have been tempted to consider a higher rating if it had not been so long. The length is a problem in a story that drifts at such a slow pace, with details I couldn't care less about. If stories can affect the heart rate from high intensity to resting, then this will set the heart rate to coma.
In the early part of the nineteenth -century there arose in northern England ( well one by the border of Wales) two powerful magicians, old bookworm Gilbert Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey, always reading in his immense dark library, obscure ancient dusty books on the subject that he cares only about, magic and young tall Jonathan Strange, who inherited like his future short friend, tutor and rival Mr. Norrell, (not interested then, in wizardry) a vast amount of property and money. Around the city of York magic flourished, both resided in small villages many miles from the unknown other, Mr. Strange is quite different from the mysterious recluse Gilbert, no books of the supernatural, soon to be married likes to get out of his house, (Ashfair) mingle with people, have fun and live...In the Fall (Autumn) of 1806, a society of magicians in York met every week in a rundown inn and discussing, ( sometimes tempers flare) what else magic, that they were amateurs and couldn't do any spells didn't matter, passion was the only importance . Sending letters to the private Mr.Norrell after discovering he was the true article, a practicing, accomplished man in the fine art of conjuring, asking him to appear at their next meeting he declines, they write back a disrespectful note; a contract is drawn up, the angry magician does show his skill in the city's Cathedral, only his servant John Childermass is present, the frightened society of not able men see stones move, they quickly disband as the agreement stated... The bored Mr.Strange doesn't know what should be his profession, his would be fiancee Arabella, is anxious to know before consenting to marry him, nothing interest the rich man except an unusual, vague liking of magic... and the weird thing is he's good at it. Newspaper stories about this incident at the church makes Mr.Norrell famous in London, he travels there yet it takes many parties and gatherings to reach his goal, he has a few friends to tell him what is required , time passes by, finally meeting influential government officials, after bringing back a dead woman to life, he can be useful to the authorities in fighting Napoleon...making phantom ships that scare the French. Naturally Jonathan Strange wants to talk to the great Mr.Norrell, visits him in the capital and impressed by his abilities, the famous enchanter makes Jonathan his pupil, but of course they get on each others nerves. And still an almighty odd, evil spirit a faerie, much more fearsome than either of the magicians, lurks about bringing death and destruction everywhere. ..The government takes the young man to Portugal to help the Duke of Wellington, (at first not taken seriously, by the unruffled general ) fight the French invaders, crisscrossing that nation and Spain also, fixing roads confusing the enemy changing the course of rivers, the bloody battles go on year after bloody year, he Mr.Strange becomes immune to the carnage...This fantasy an alternative history of Britain, is a wonderful fable for anyone interested in magic, makes it seem that it really exist nevertheless, will entertain and bring pure joy to those people the grateful readers, that want to be intrigued.
After a hiatus of several centuries since it was actively practiced, magic is back in early 19th century England. Clarke has created an alternate, magical history, in which England had once been divided between north and south, and a temporal and a fairy kingdom. Stuffy intellectuals satisfy themselves with studying the writings of the past, forming debating societies. But in 1807 a person emerges who dares to actually practice magic.
Eddie Marsden as Mr Norrell - from AMC networks
Mr Norrell is an arrogant fellow, convinced not only that he is the only decent practical magician in England, but that it would be best if he were the only one allowed to practice at all. He proceeds to play politics to sustain, increase and legitimize his monopoly. The emergence of a second practical magician presents a challenge, solved in the short term by taking on Jonathan Strange as a student.
Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange
Both magicians want to use their talent for the good of their country, and perform amusing and not so amusing spells on the French enemy. Ultimately they are faced with the growing emergence of a real, powerful, underlying magical realm. It intrudes on their lives and forces them to confront darkness while trying to master the unsuspected reality.
Marc Warren as “The Gentleman”
The book has a wonderful pretext, and the tale is told in a straight style, with more than a few touches of humor. It offers a look at how the new use the machinery of government to create a sinecure, how a need to impress can lead to corruption. It is fun to read, but does take quite a long time, and has sections in which it drags. It should probably have been shorter by a hundred or two hundred pages.
Susanna Clarke - from Minnesota public radio
Meanderings are many. In short, or long, it was enjoyable, and is recommended but not to the highest degree. Several award committees disagreed, holding it in significantly higher esteem. JS&MN was not only long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, it was short-listed for several other awards and won, among others, the World Fantasy award for best novel, the British Book Award for best newcomer of the Year, and the Hugo Award.
The TV adaptation was shown beginning (in the USA anyway) in June 2015
Review posted – 10/29/2008 Updated and Reposted - 6/19/15
Publication date – 9/30/2004
I found no personal site for Clarke, nor, FB nor Twitter. Bloomsbury has put up a Facebook page for the book
A particularly nifty site organizes people, places, et al, from the book. If you get heavily into the book, this is a must-have resource
I finally finished! My paperback was more than 1,000 pages long, so this is a triumph.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a book that I started out loving, but the middle part dragged so much that I grew impatient for the story to end. I feel so differently about the two halves of the book that I wish I could issue two Goodreads ratings.
Let's start with what I liked about this novel. Susanna Clarke has a great imagination and a good sense of humor. The story is set in the early 1800s in England and follows the adventures of two magicians, Mr. Strange and Mr. Norrell. They have different opinions about magic, and while they start out as collaborators, they later become enemies. At different times, both magicians are enlisted to help the British Army and Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. (The extensive battle scenes are what started to drag down the book.) The story also involves a spiteful fairy, who likes to steal people away to his kingdom. The story builds until there is a fateful showdown between the mean fairy and the magicians. There's a lot else going on, but to try and summarize it all would drive me mad.
Parts of this book were charming and amusing, and I sometimes smiled while reading, more so in the first half. Clarke's wit has been compared to Jane Austen's, but let's not get carried away, people. I'll grant that it's amusing, and Clarke captured some foibles of human nature. But this wouldn't make my list of things I regularly recommend to fans of Miss Austen.
My complaints about the book revolve mostly around its epic, meandering story, which did not have to be 1,000 pages. This book was desperately in need of a tougher editor. Clarke also included lots of footnotes, most of which were too clever by half. I listened to this on audio, and the footnotes were read at the indicated place in the text, but if I had just read the print book I would have quickly grown irritated and skimmed all of them.
My other frustration with this book was how dim-witted Strange and Norrell were. They were ridiculously slow to catch on to what the evil fairy was doing, despite the fact that they were supposed to be clever, powerful magicians. It seemed like the author was dragging out their ignorance in order to lengthen the story, which really didn't need any lengthening.
While I do have complaints about this book, I did enjoy a good part of it. These epic novels are so difficult to rate. I think I'll give the first half a 4 and the last half a 3. I'll be generous and rate this a 3.5 rounded up to 4.
Recommended, with caution, to those who like magical stories and British humor.
Favorite Quotes "Can a magician kill a man by magic?" Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. "I suppose a magician might," he admitted, "but a gentleman never would."
"Well, I suppose one ought not to employ a magician and then complain that he does not behave like other people."
"I have a scholar's love of silence and solitude. To sit and pass hour after hour in idle chatter with a roomful of strangers is to me the worst sort of torment."
"Houses, like people, are apt to become rather eccentric if left too much on their own; this house was the architectural equivalent of an old gentleman in a worn dressing-gown and torn slippers, who got up and went to bed at odd times of day, and who kept up a continual conversation with friends no one else could see."
"Oh! And they read English novels! David! Did you ever look into an English novel? Well, do not trouble yourself. It is nothing but a lot of nonsense about girls with fanciful names getting married."
"The argument he was conducting with his neighbor as to whether the English magician had gone mad because he was a magician, or because he was English."
Nope, nope, nope. DNF at 68%. The act of reading has become a chore, a sensation that cannot be condoned or perpetuated.
It's been six hundred and eighty pages, and this book has yet to enthrall or surprise. The character motives baffle, the fantasy elements are uneven, the tone is dry and the story uneventful. Writing a tome of this magnitude is no small feat, but it's achieved to greater effect by Jonathan Stroud in his marvelous book, The Amulet of Samarkand, which I would leap to recommend while warning bookworms to steer clear of this cumbersome book.
We go to England in the 1800’s, a time of the Napoleonic Wars, a time when most people believe magic to be dead in England. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are two magicians attempting, each in their own way, to change that and restore magic to England.
I can admit that it took me a while to find my legs here, acquire my own rhythm with the writing and the story. In many ways this reads like a history lesson... The entire aspect and nature of magic and its history are all carefully and explicitly laid out, fully annotated with historical references that appear as footnotes (which while bitter at first, soon became delicious little bits that nourished and enriched). I came to crave them. Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington, both, put in an appearance here, casually lending their historical pertinence, as England’s Prime Minister and his cabinet employ the magicians to assist in the battle against Napoleon.
Susanna so deftly describes the two main protagonists, the magicians, so intricately, as to impart an intimate understanding of each of them. As opposite in character as they are in appearance Strange & Norrell command this stage, but along the way they share the spotlight, with a whole cast of others, people, that step right off the page:
The man extracted himself from the hedge. This was no easy task because various parts of it – hawthorn twigs, elder branches, strands of ivy, mistletoe and witches broom – had insinuated themselves among his clothes, limbs and hair during the night or glued themselves to him with ice. He sat up. He did not seem in the least surprised to find he had an audience; one would almost have supposed from his behaviour that he had been expecting it. He looked at them all and gave several disparaging sniffs and snorts.
He ran his fingers through his hair, removing dead leaves, bits of twig and half a dozen earwigs. “I reached out my hand” he muttered, to no-one in particular. “England’s rivers turned and flowed the other way.” He loosened his neckcloth and fished out some spiders which had taken up residence inside his shirt. In doing so, he revealed that his neck and throat were ornamented with an odd pattern of blue lines, dots, crosses and circles. Then he wrapped his neckcloth back about his neck and, having thus completed his toilet to his satisfaction, he rose to his feet.
“My name is Vinculus”, he declared.
What I loved most, as I listened to Susanna’s story was that it took me away, where a slow and curious sort of calm came over me. A kind of a hush, seemingly impenetrable, descended about me. A strange sense of quiet fell, like one might find in the wee hours of the morning. I relaxed, shook off the shackles of day to day and settled in, wholly immersed now and in no particular hurry, on this long, long journey. I stretched out my legs, met the man with the thistle-down hair and considered the colour of a heartache. I visited ballrooms and battlefields, travelled faerie roads, and searched for the Raven King. I watched the birds as they came to my feeder and fell away, to lost-hope house and all the mirrors of the world, utterly enchanted, and I believed.
It was as if a door had opened somewhere. Or possibly a series of doors. There was a sensation as of a breeze blowing into the house and bringing with it the half- remembered scents of childhood. There was a shift in the light which seemed to cause all the shadows in the room to fall differently. There was nothing more definite than that, and yet, as often happens when some magic is occurring, both Drawlight and the lady had the strongest impression that nothing in the visible world could be relied upon any more. It was as if one might put out one’s hand to touch any thing in the room and discover it was no longer there.
A tall mirror hung upon the wall above the sopha where the lady sat. It shewed a second great white moon in a second tall dark window and a second dim-mirror room. But Drawlight and the lady did not appear in the mirror room at all. Instead there was a kind of an indistinctness, which became a sort of shadow, which became the dark shape of someone coming towards them. From the path which this person took, it could clearly be seen that the mirror room was not like the original at all and that it was only by odd tricks of lighting and perspective – such as one might meet with in the theatre- that they appeared to be the same. It seemed that the mirror room was actually a long corridor. The hair and coat of the mysterious figure were stirred by a wind which could not be felt in their own room and though he walked briskly towards the glass which separated the two rooms, it was taking him some time to reach it. But finally he reached the glass and then there was a moment when his dark shape loomed very large behind it and his face was still in shadow.
Susanna Clarke tells a story that spills over with wonder.
Imagine Charles Dickens figuring out how to master the time/space continuum, managing to make his way into our present, and briefly discussing his masterwork, Hard Times, with J. K. Rowling. The result being this huge-assed, yet entertaining tome on British magic. Way to go, Boz and thanks!!
Is this for real, Jeff?
Not really random Goodreader. I had too much coffee this morning and my mind is racing like a sports car driven by Danica Patrick.
This book does kind of hit several literary sweet spots with me: Historical Fiction (waves to the Duke of Wellington and that walking horn ball poet, Lord Byron), Fantasy and a terrific sense of humor on the part of Susanna Clarke.
The skinny: After centuries, English magic - long dormant - is being revived by a peevish asshat named Mr. Norrell. He wants to be THE one and only English magician and will spare nothing to block any one else interested in pulling rabbits from hats or doing card tricks. He reluctantly takes on a pupil, Jonathon Strange. Their magic helps kick Napoleon’s ass. There’s an evil, creepy faerie – kind of like a lethal obsessive powdered wig wearing Loki. He has his own agenda.
And the great and powerful Raven King. Always the Raven King.
Sounds great and it was for the most part, except:
This starts off rather slowly – like a rollercoaster that takes its sweet-assed time getting up the first ascent – hanging on Clarke’s wit to keep the plot moving along. After the first descent and some frequent lunch losing swervings and such, the book takes off.
As a lazy reader, I always welcome any sort of illustrations in books – especially 1000 page books - because I can jump ahead a few pages and feel a sense of accomplishment. However, the art here was of the murky – just – what – heck – is – that variety. Hey, I read graphic novels and know a thing or two about art. Where the hell were the Brothers Hildebrandt?
As a concept, I can understand why Clarke footnoted the crap out of this book (quoting fake magic texts to give her book verisimilitude and suck the reader into the imaginary world), but if there’s ever a literary device that can grind any reading momentum to a halt, its half-page footnotes. A bunch of ‘em.
My advice: skip over them.
I hated typing in foot notes when I did school papers and I wish a pox on the family of the dude who invented the footnote.
Still, the book has tons to recommend for the right reader – the ending is the cat’s pajamas – the characters are beautifully fleshed out - just stay with it after the spotty beginning.["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"]>
simultaneously contemptuous and admiring of georgian culture and society, and possessed of many, many insights into the black heart of humankind, this book left me in a state of despair shot through with occasional palpitations of humor and excitement.
on the whole, a vastly self-indulgent work—and as impressed with itself as we're meant to be.
the footnotes, see... i love footnotes. but unlike, say, infinite jest, whose footnotes were by and large interesting and germane, these were most often completely useless and not at all worth the trouble of navigating to and fro within the ebook... when the links were working properly at all, of course.
i get the sense that i was meant to enjoy, as goodreads reviewer paul bryant said, the fake scholarship of our omniscient narrator referring to books that d0 not exist, because that's wildly entertaining, i guess?
and yet the writing here is, i felt, very good.
it's just that the story—it wandered.
to and fro, round england and onto the continent (three times), and then back again, somewhat aimlessly, as if by the vagaries of chance.
it's a pantser's novel, i concluded halfway through; reading interviews with the author confirmed my suspicion: she'd just sorta begun and went wherever the hell her story took her.
at nearly 900 pages, with those bloody footnotes—well.
it took her a hell of a lot of places, i can tell you.
so i'm unhappy about the superficial structure of the thing; the indulgence of all the unnecessary foolishness and dead-end mini-stories in it; the sense that the hand at the tiller had no idea where this was all going and let's just all find out together, shall we?
really good, really sharp observations on how people work, and what motivates them, and how they fuck themselves up.
it's just that... it's really grim, too. bcuz humans are grim as fuck.
where does that leave me and my review?
i dunno. it is technically proficient, yet horribly excessive; it is beautifully rendered, but quite mercilessly features the brutal ugliness of the human spirit; it's terribly engaging, yet lasts for ever and ever and ends kinda abruptly.
with footnotes, naturally.
if two stars equals 'it was okay,' three equals 'i liked it,' and four equals 'i loved it,' how in the fuck many stars do you give a book you variously liked, loved, and thought was just okay?