Sean Barrs the Bookdragon's Reviews > Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
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it was amazing
bookshelves: fantasy, 5-star-reads, favourites, magical-realism
Read 2 times. Last read May 18, 2015 to July 12, 2015.

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

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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

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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.

Authenticity

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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!

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
January 17, 2014 – Shelved
May 18, 2015 – Started Reading
May 23, 2015 – Shelved as: fantasy
May 31, 2015 –
page 55
5.47% "I wish I had a library like Mr Norrel’s! He is such a lucky guy. Maybe one day Sean, maybe one day."
July 8, 2015 –
page 950
94.43% "I can honestly say that this is quite possibly my favourite book of all time or at the very least in my top three. I can’t wait to post my review of this!"
July 12, 2015 – Finished Reading
February 13, 2016 – Shelved as: 5-star-reads
May 22, 2017 – Shelved as: favourites
January 15, 2018 – Shelved as: magical-realism

Comments Showing 1-50 of 56 (56 new)


Mark Enjoyed the first episode.


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Mark wrote: "Enjoyed the first episode."

Me too, I prefering Norrel at this point though. I think that guy is playing him very well.

The line "look, this gentleman's reading a book"

had me in a near laughing fit.


Gergana Have to watch it! I absolutely adored the book! :)


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Gergana wrote: "Have to watch it! I absolutely adored the book! :)"

It’s great. I was worried they’d spoil it, but so far they’ve done it brilliantly; Mr Norrel has been done so well. It’s too early to tell with Strange though.


message 5: by Gergana (last edited May 19, 2015 04:24AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gergana Bookworm Sean wrote: "Gergana wrote: "Have to watch it! I absolutely adored the book! :)"

It’s great. I was worried they’d spoil it, but so far they’ve done it brilliantly; Mr Norrel has been done so well. It’s too ear..."


Eeep! Watching it this weekend! Don't know about you, but the only adverts I saw for the release date were on tumblr. If I didn't have a tumblr account I wouldn't have known it's already out. They should do better marketing :D


Mark It was advertised on the BBC for about two weeks before it started.


Gergana Mark wrote: "It was advertised on the BBC for about two weeks before it started."

Only two weeks? :(


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Gergana wrote: "Mark wrote: "It was advertised on the BBC for about two weeks before it started."

Only two weeks? :("


I only knew about it because I saw it on the front cover of a magazine, and that’s only because I work at a shop.


Peter I think it should be required viewnig for how to adapt a book for TV. Despite the changes they have done a fantastic job. Loved the beach scene and the two leads are superb.


Peter Put it on the want to read shelf again.


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Peter wrote: "I think it should be required viewnig for how to adapt a book for TV. Despite the changes they have done a fantastic job. Loved the beach scene and the two leads are superb."

Yes they are. I think Mr Norrel is great!

The scene with the reaminated French troops was a bit freaky though!


Morgannah Loved when he said "I want to go home and read a book", then he was caught reading one while at the party!


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Morgannah wrote: "Loved when he said "I want to go home and read a book", then he was caught reading one while at the party!"

I know it was so funny! :)

I also liked the line "nothing is worth the loss of fourty books!"


Morgannah Bookworm Sean wrote: I know it was so funny! :)
I also liked the line "nothing is worth the loss of fourty books!..."


I know! I also loved when Mr. Norrell wanted to leave London he said (paraphrasing) "This house isn't respectable, just look at the size of the library".


message 15: by Chantal (new) - added it

Chantal Is the TV adaptation loyal to the original story? I'm indecisive about whether to watch the TV series before reading the book or vice versa. Actually I've watched the first episode but haven't started reading the book yet. I don't want the TV series to spoil the major plot points of the book and ruin my enjoyment of the book, but I am so tempted to watch the new episodes. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.


Morgannah Chantal wrote: "Is the TV adaptation loyal to the original story? I'm indecisive about whether to watch the TV series before reading the book or vice versa. Actually I've watched the first episode but haven't star..."

Chantal, I think the T.V. series will indeed spoil the major plot points for you. I rarely reread books because when I know the "what happens next" element of the plot it takes some of the fun out of it for me.
That being said, the book is massive and full of imagery and feeling and beautiful prose. I think you would enjoy the book even after watching the series. But if you want to read the book with the element of surprise intact I would read the book first.


message 17: by Peter (last edited Jun 09, 2015 09:30AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Peter Well said Morgannah. The Tv series is quite different to the book in places but there are major plot spoilers. I would indeed recommend you read the book first and enjoy its subtlety.


message 18: by Chantal (new) - added it

Chantal Thanks a lot, both Morgannah and Peter, your responses have been really helpful. I'll definitely read the book before catching up on/binge-watching the series.


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon I agree book first show second! :)


Wayne Barrett I have this on my to read list. Now I want to get to it even more. Nice review.


Wayne Barrett I have this on my to read list. Now I want to get to it even more. Nice review.


Peter Enjoyed the updated review. Best book of the year for me with a superb TV series.


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Wayne wrote: "I have this on my to read list. Now I want to get to it even more. Nice review."

Thanks. I hope you like it too!


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Peter wrote: "Enjoyed the updated review. Best book of the year for me with a superb TV series."

The show was very well done. The guy who played Norrell was brilliant!


Sorina Such an incredible book! Clarke needs to write more books, it'd be so unfortunate if she doesn't. I keep saying that I want a book solely about the Raven King. He was such an interesting character.


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Sorina wrote: "Such an incredible book! Clarke needs to write more books, it'd be so unfortunate if she doesn't. I keep saying that I want a book solely about the Raven King. He was such an interesting character."

I do agree with you, but I do think the lack of real knowledge about him helps to create his appeal. He is somewhat of an enigma.

I'd like to see how Childermass met Norrell.


message 27: by Peter (last edited Jul 12, 2015 12:39PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Peter You might be interested in her book, The Ladies of Grace Adieu which is a series of short stories set in the same world with some very familiar characters.


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Peter wrote: "You might be interested in her book, The Ladies of Grace Adieu which is a series of short stories set in the same world with some very familiar characters."

Yep....I've got that on my shelf, but I'm yet to read it. I'm saving it. I don't know what for, but I'm saving it nonetheless! ;)


message 29: by Markus (new) - added it

Markus No idea why, but I've heard so much about this book on Goodreads and haven't heard of it at all otherwise. Might be because low fantasy has never interested me much.

Either way, great review :) It's already on my list, but perhaps I'll actually be able to get to it some day.


message 30: by Katie (new)

Katie Brock I watched the show first. Now I'm dying to read the book.


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Markus wrote: "No idea why, but I've heard so much about this book on Goodreads and haven't heard of it at all otherwise. Might be because low fantasy has never interested me much.

Either way, great review :) It..."


Thanks :)

I'd not heard anything about it. I randomly bought it for 50p in a stock liquidation sale about five years ago. It sat on my shelf for three years before I even looked at it.


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Katie wrote: "I watched the show first. Now I'm dying to read the book."

The book's a lot more subtle than the show. The show producers did a good job, but the book is, of course, better! ;)


message 33: by Liz (new) - rated it 4 stars

Liz Barnsley I haven't read or watched but I guess I'd better try and fit it in somewhere - it sounds great.


message 34: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Such a passionate review, Sean. I love how moved you were by the writing and story.


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Liz wrote: "I haven't read or watched but I guess I'd better try and fit it in somewhere - it sounds great."

It really is! ;)


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Cheryl wrote: "Such a passionate review, Sean. I love how moved you were by the writing and story."

Thanks- I just loved what she did. It's almost like paying repects to an era that is long dead. I wish more authors could do what she did.


Jackie I agree with every word of your review, Sean. I absolutely loved this book!


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Jackie wrote: "I agree with every word of your review, Sean. I absolutely loved this book!"

Me too, me too. I wonder if she will publish any more books in the future.


Jackie I haven't seen anything other than some short stories which I haven't found yet. I wish she would write another book. A sequel would be great.


Olivier Delaye Completely agree; this book is a masterpiece of literature worth reading and rereading. And if I may be so bold, I find your review of it extremely well written, informative and entertaining. Definitely the best review of JS&N on Goodreads!


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Olivier wrote: "Completely agree; this book is a masterpiece of literature worth reading and rereading. And if I may be so bold, I find your review of it extremely well written, informative and entertaining. Defin..."

Thanks, that's nice to hear. I took my time with this when I read it a second time. I read it over a couple of months, which allowed me to appreciate its worth more and explain why I love it so much!


Olivier Delaye Bookworm Sean wrote: "Olivier wrote: "Completely agree; this book is a masterpiece of literature worth reading and rereading. And if I may be so bold, I find your review of it extremely well written, informative and ent..."

The audiobook is a gem, too. Simon Prebble, the narrator, did a pretty amazing job at bringing Clarke's world and characters to life.


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Olivier wrote: "Bookworm Sean wrote: "Olivier wrote: "Completely agree; this book is a masterpiece of literature worth reading and rereading. And if I may be so bold, I find your review of it extremely well writte..."

I don't usually bother with audio books, but if I was to listen to one then it would likely be this :)


Anne Definitely one of my best books of 2015!


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Anne (Anneshka) wrote: "Definitely one of my best books of 2015!"

Good :)

It's going to be hard for me not to read this again next year! ;)


Magdalena aka A Bookaholic Swede I have had this book for years, but I have yet read it. But your review makes me eager to read it. :)


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Magdalena wrote: "I have had this book for years, but I have yet read it. But your review makes me eager to read it. :)"

It's great! I had it for a while too before I finaly read it :)


message 48: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike An outstanding review, Sean!! I know this one has been buzzing on my radar for a long while now but you've convinced me to finally put it on the TBR mountain.


Sean Barrs the Bookdragon Mike wrote: "An outstanding review, Sean!! I know this one has been buzzing on my radar for a long while now but you've convinced me to finally put it on the TBR mountain."

Thanks :)

It is so worth it! ;)


message 50: by Efrona (new) - added it

Efrona Mor Great review, and another book I now must read.. (: Thanks


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