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652 of 667 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clearing up misconceptions
After reading the negative reviews of this book, I thought it would be helpful to clear up some misconceptions and set out a quick test of whether a reader is likely to enjoy "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell".

Here's my take: it's NOT Harry Potter. If you want a quick-paced book, with lots of action and easy-to-read prose, THIS IS NOT YOUR BOOK. Here's the...
Published on November 2, 2004 by Antaeus

versus
67 of 83 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars 10 yrs to write - 10 long, tiring days to read
Grisham freely admits in the preface to "A Time to Kill" that it is his first book and is a little long winded and slow at times. This one needs a similar disclaimer.

I get the sense that Clarke could tell a good story. This book in fact actually contains a good story, it just gets lost in and amongst the 782 pages.

Some general comments:...
Published on December 31, 2004 by J. Iverson


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652 of 667 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clearing up misconceptions, November 2, 2004
After reading the negative reviews of this book, I thought it would be helpful to clear up some misconceptions and set out a quick test of whether a reader is likely to enjoy "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell".

Here's my take: it's NOT Harry Potter. If you want a quick-paced book, with lots of action and easy-to-read prose, THIS IS NOT YOUR BOOK. Here's the test: If, by the end of the first chapter, you have not laughed out loud or even chuckled, YOU WILL PROBABLY NOT LIKE THIS BOOK. And that's perfectly OK - I hope I've saved you from buying it (nothing's worse, IMHO, than buying a book you end up hating).

I personally love this book - I'd easily rate it as one of the best books I've read in years. But I also love Jane Austen, Mervyn Peake and Lord Dunsany. To me, this book is both an homage to and a witty send-up of 19th century literature. But you have to like that kind of literature and "get" the jokes that the author is making (both in the style of the prose as well as the play on historical events) to really enjoy this book.

I want to make it clear that I think it's fine if people hate this book. However, I am troubled by comments that suggest it's a bad book. That's not true - it's simply a matter of preferences. For example, I happen to detest Dickens and like comic books. But I don't think that Dickens is an awful writer and comic book writers are superior to him - Dickens just isn't my style. So I'd emphasize that, in my opinion, Susanna Clarke is a phenomenal writer. But the pleasure of this book lies as much (if not more) in the way it's written as the events that take place - so if you're not interested in prose for its own sake, it'll be hard going.
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1,737 of 1,837 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A pleasure throughout but patience required, September 16, 2004
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I'm giving Jonathan Strange a 5 for the simply reason that I thoroughly enjoyed it all the way through, but I'd warn all readers to be more wary than usual of reviews (including this one). More than many books, this one I think will be a matter of true personal taste and experience will be your only truly accurate guide.

To begin with, Strange is often referred to as a "fantasy" novel, an "adult" Harry Potter (ignoring Potter's self-obvious claim to millions of "adult" readers). If you're expecting fantasy in the form of Harry Potter magic (though done by bigger people employing bigger words) or Lord of the Rings-like quests and elves, be advised neither is here. Fantastical might be a better genre-word here than "fantasy". There is certainly magic here, both human and faerie (very different forms), but when one of the major storylines is how magic has gradually disappeared from England and when one of the major characters has as his purpose the destruction (not Black Tower hordes of evil monsters destruction but economic, social, or legal destruction) of those who would become magician, as you might imagine there isn't a lot of magic going on, at least not for the first few hundred pages. Those looking for a lot of wand-waving or fireball-flinging would best look elsewhere.

One of the signs of the book's maturity is that one can't really generalize too much about the magic in it. Magic is almost invisible in the beginning and near-constant toward the end. It is scholarly, bookish and tedious and also vigorous, physical and exciting. It is human and Faerie and a melding of the two. It is all-powerful (Spain complains about the rearrangement of several of their country's geographic landmarks) and ineffective (you can see visions in water but they seldom are helpful). It is the subject of dry articles in academic journals and the cause of near-rumbles in local taverns. It is wonderfully complex and realistic. It is at times dazzlingly original (ships and sailors formed of rain, statues anguished over crimes committed beneath them), and handled often as if it is the most pedestrian, mundane aspect of daily life, except for the whole raise-the-dead, towering-shaft-of-neverending-night sort of thing.

As for other fantasy genre elements, there is no band of diverse creatures setting out on a quest to defeat some dark lord; no tall, shining elvish archers; no nomadic horse-loving tribes. If you want to find a Tolkien analogue, it isn't Lord of the Rings but Smith of Wooten Major, an often forgotten story about the collision of the human and faerie realms.

Strange is also referred to as a historical novel. It is set in early 19th century England, Wellington and other historical figures make their appearance, characters travel in carriages rather than cars. But the book's historical setting, like its magical element, is more pervasive than emphatic. It exists alongside the characters and story and serves them rather than being front and center as is true of so many historical novels. One is always aware of the historical setting, but I don't think anyone would come away from Strange with a truly enlarged understanding of the time period, as say one might from Lindsay Davis' mystery series set in ancient Rome, where specific foods and social rituals and forms of clothing etc. are constantly set before the reader. The setting is utterly believable, I'm sure meticulously researched, detailed and accurate, but it still doesn't feel like a "historical novel". Which from my view is a strength not a weakness.

My advice therefore is not to place your should I read or not bet on the book's labels. What should you know?

It's long. Very long. Longer than it seems according to the page count, since there are pages and pages of small-type footnotes throughout. Is it too long? I'm sure many people will think so. It takes its time in setting up story and character, leisurely is probably too fast-paced a description. It is far from compelling in the first few hundred pages in the sense of "must turn page to find out what happens". Personally, I found it compelling through character and style rather than plot. If you prefer plot, then prepare to be somewhat bored until the latter third where it moves along more speedily and in more traditional compelling manner.

It's discursive. Very discursive. It will wander away quite often and sometimes at great length from the major plot lines, interrupting with academic asides or summaries/analyses of old folktales, or snippets of poetry. Again, some will probably find this maddening, some will simply skip the footnotes entirely. I liked the discursive nature of the book and found the footnotes often as enjoyable as the main text, always tolerable, and only rarely annoying.

It is often beautifully written. it's one of those books where you'll pause over a line to reread it or let its effect linger a little while, whether due to the simple beauty of description, the efficiency of its brevity, or its dry wit. It is a true pleasure to read. Not to find out what happened. Simply to read.

It's often funny. It is at times frighteningly dark. It has at times a domestic feel and at other times a grand mythic feel, especially in connection to the Raven King, the mysterious magician-king of old North England who also ruled over a land of Faerie and allegedly another land bordering Hell who disappeared centuries ago with the promise of return. Whether that return is to be wished for or not is the core dispute between the two magicians of the title.

It is character driven. There are many wonderful scenes of "action", more so toward the latter half, but they tend to be understated while the book focuses more on character. Both Strange and Norrell are fully-fleshed out characters, totally believable in all their assets and flaws. We are given the time to know them and if Strange seems more appealing due to his more active role in the book, Norrell is no less accessible or recognizable for his minor jealousies and passiveness, though we may wish to deny the same traits in ourselves. The story of their meeting, their partnership, their sundering and what comes next is one of the major storylines and one of the more engaging, even if it happens mostly on the interior and despite the fact that the characters themselves are not particularly compelling by nature.

There is a lot more one could say about this book. It's a lengthy work and a dense work. One could discuss the conflict between wild faerie and civilized England--presented in shades of grey rather than black and white. The sharp social commentary. The distant narrative tone. But this review is edging close to the length of one of her footnotes, so I'll bring it to a close.

Try Jonathan Strange. If it doesn't draw you along, keep trying. If it still doesn't, try skimming footnotes, skimming pages, dipping in now and then to keep up on plot and catch one of those well-crafted lines, then come in for a landing and try again word by word. It isn't a rollercoaster ride on a summer Saturday . But it is a memorably gorgeous walk on a crisp autumn day, filled with slow sensual delight. Highly recommended.
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488 of 525 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quite the book., September 3, 2004
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T. Simons (United States) - See all my reviews
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This book is hard to describe. In terms of genre, it is both fantasy and well-researched historical fiction, which makes it a rather rare bird. The writing style falls somewhere between Austen and Gaiman and Dickens. The plot is somewhat rambling and disjoint, forsaking the standard quest narratives; in some ways it is a fantastic history of England, in some ways a tale of rescue. If it is anything, it is the story of the relationship between the two title characters, but one of them is not even introduced for two hundred pages.

. Unlike most of the better modern fantasy, this book is not a page-turner, and I mean that as a compliment; rather, it is a book to savor. Not that the plot isn't engaging - it is - but I frequently found myself comparing how many pages I'd read to how many I had left, deciding that I was burning through the book too quickly, and setting it down while I turned the passages I'd just read over in my head.

As befits a character-driven fantasy, almost all the characters are likeable, or at least understandable; even when they take larger-than-life action, they do so for incredibly human reasons. There are also a number of historical-character cameos, all of them well-drawn and believable..

I do not agree with Mr. Gaiman's statement that this is "the finest English novel of the fantasticke to appear in the past 70 years." Tolkien is better; his work has an epic grandeur that this book lacks, perhaps because Susanna Clarke so realistically and concretely evokes the precise historical era at which she aims : the imagination has a somewhat wider canvas to paint on when reading Tolkien or similar high fantasy, with more blank space to be filled in by the reader. Setting fantasy in a specific historical setting means that the magic stands out against the realistic elements, rather than dictating the whole scope and shape of the world, and readers who prefer their fantasy more total - who prefer to sink themselves into a wholly fantastic world - may prefer other books. (On the other hand, readers who prefer to sink themselves into specific historical eras, but still appreciate fantasy elements, will no doubt enjoy this book, especially the ways in which the author incorporates magical elements into the recorded historical happenings of the era, such as, for example, the battle of Waterloo). I would also argue that Mr. Gaiman's novels are "better," in that I personally prefer them slightly, if only because they tend to have a little more tension and action in them.

But on the whole this book is very, very good, and I recommend it highly to anyone who likes historical fiction, fantasy novels, or just quality writing and well-drawn, likeable characters. This is not, however, fantasy for the action-oriented, or for those who desire a bad guy or monster every few pages. This is a book to be read while sitting in a comfortable chair by a warm fire, something drinkable near at hand; a book to be quietly enjoyed.
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83 of 91 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Marvelous, engrossing, rings absolutely true, September 6, 2004
Historical fiction is hard, because you have to respect the past while seeming to move about freely within it. Genre fiction is also hard, because you have to work to create a totally believable world without letting any of the scaffolding show. And when you try to blend the two, the difficulty of the task is compounded. It's wondrous that Susanna Clarke pulls this off, and miraculous that she does it so well. Not a note rings false. She imagines Great Britain at the close of the Age of Enlightenment, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, and she also imagines that world having the study and investigation of magic as one of its core components. Her Gilbert Norrell is one of the miracles of this book -- precisely the sort of magician that the era of Hume, Dr. Johnson, and Benjamin Franklin would produce. Her Jonathan Strange is also totally believable -- a product of the era of Byron and Shelley who is also reminiscent of Jane Austen's Mr. Knightley, yet just as sardonic and intellectually venturesome as his sometime mentor, sometime adversary. And John Childermass, Norrell's servant and conscience, is brilliantly realized. And I could say the same about just about every other character in this book. Every step of the way, her vast, crowded, action-packed, yet intensely thoughtful book works perfectly. I usually hate these analogies, but imagine if Jane Austen teamed up with China Mieville to write a book with J. K. Rowling, William Makepeace Thackeray, and John Le Carre as an editorial advisory committee. (By the way, I am a historian who works on this period, so when I say that this book works as a historical novel as well as a fantasy novel, it's the real deal.)
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69 of 75 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Will you like this book - a brief quiz, May 30, 2006
By 
Stuart Hall (Richmond, VA USA) - See all my reviews
1. Have you read the Amazon excerpt or, better yet, the first chapter? If not, please do so. This, for better or worse, is what the next several hundred pages are going to be - dense, semi-archaic prose; voluminous footnotes in tiny print, few of which relate to the plot; and a very focussed, extremely painstaking approach to what some may feel is a genre best treated with a little less solemnity.

2. Do you have a LOT of time on your hands? The book demands as much. It does not easily lend itself to brief sessions of reading over an extended period of time.

3. Would it bother you to spend all that time and all those pages on a narrative whose main characters are somewhat less than sympathetic? If any of the answers are "No" then maybe another book would provide a more pleasurable reading experience.

However, please note the five star rating. This is a magical experience, with double meaning fully intended. I've read the book twice from cover to cover in the last six months and will probably revisit it again this summer. Ms. Clarke has created a world which compares, in richness and detail, with any of her contemporaries and most of her predecessors. The plot holds together remarkably well considering the infinity of digressions she provides. I am dying for a sequel. If you're interested, but not convinced, I would strongly recommend taking advantage of Barnes and Noble's comfortable chairs, or those in your closest library, and perusing a chapter or two. If you're not hooked by then, let it go. Otherwise, clear your calendar for the next several days and enter a new world. Real English magic may not exist, but Ms. Clarke's will more than suffice.
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38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant But Not For Everyone, by Neil Turley, November 13, 2007
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell combines the style and pace of a Victorian era novel with a dash of magic and it's resulting messes to create a 1000 page book that is bulging with mock historical digressions and footnotes that will either make you pull your hair out or fall off your chair laughing. The Victorian style and pace make the fantasy die-hards go crazy, but it fills the historian and Victorian fans with delight. The things that are most frustrating to the average reader are the slow pace (I'll admit I nearly gave up near the end) and historical digressions. To an audience that is more used to such things, however it is a very fun and interesting book.

The book follows the stories of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, although it is 260 pages before we meet Strange and begin volume two and we start to follow his story. This slow introduction gets a little frustrating because Mr. Norrell is a very horrible man and the lack of moral characters starts to irritate you after two hundred pages or so. A quarter in to the book, we finally meet our protagonist and the reader begins to get more comfortable reading through the chaos caused by these two magicians learning magic and their participation in the war against France. After the war is concluded the plot slows down again and things get dull for a while. This would be fine place to end the book except that some of the plot threads still have not made any progress since the beginning of the book and characters like the man with thistle down hair still are complete mysteries to the reader. To keep the reader in confusion about a problem and then slow the pace of the book down is very unkind and it makes you want to give up on the book altogether. Then volume three begins three where there is a horrific mess with everything and all seems lost for a good 100 pages. This is like the climax of the book but it is so drawn out and slow that you begin to go crazy (and so does the main character at this point in the book). Finally the book ends with a bang and you still don't feel completely resolved with all of the issues raised but you shrug your shoulders and hold your breath to see if it has a sequel. In general, the book has a stop and go sort of feel where you can't put the book down in some places and you can't bear to pick it up in others. This is just fine for a patient reader but it can make everyone else go nuts.

The other thing that can frustrate the average reader are the historical digressions. Throughout the book there are footnotes, and sometimes they take up more of the page than the actual text. This is convenient because the reader can skip them at will or read them and enjoy the humorous tone of the mock-historical observations, but some of the digressions are in the text. For instance, the first 200 pages barely advance the plot at all because the protagonist has not even been introduced to the reader. A great deal of that is spent on discussing Mr. Norrell's experiences with high society and frankly it is quite dull to read. These can all be very discouraging when all you want to do is to finish the book off.

The book is very long and can make a reader impatient with the plot lines that never resolve and the slow pace and sometimes you just want it to end. Don't go into it expecting an action-packed Harry Potter adventure, but with patience and a lot of time, you'll finish the sucker off with a feeling of satisfaction that you managed to kill the 1000 page beast that has been lurking on your book shelf unfinished for who knows how long.
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54 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The next marking point in fantasy literature since Tolkien., October 10, 2004
First of all, I never believe book-hypes. They virtually say the same thing over and over again, it will be the next Tolkien, if Harry Potter has fed your thirst for fantasy, try this, making unworthy comparisons that only a ridiculously gullible person would believe. Now I did not believe that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell would live up to its hype, yet I bought it all the same. I was dumbfounded.

To start out with, it's every bit as complete as Lord of the Rings, Dune, and Harry Potter, creating a convincing history of magic and magicians that's almost believeable. In every chapter there's at least 3 footnotes elaborating on fairies, various magicians, magical books, and the like, some betraying the term "footnote" by being several pages long. But they do not get tedious.

Also, the characters are wonderously detailed, having they're own funny, shocking, even haunting personalities, with names that depict the nature of the character just like in Dickens. The thing is, neither Jonathan Strange or Mr. Norrell are your ideal appealing characters. The side characters, such as Stephen Black,Childermass, and John Segundus, would be your ideal main characters. Yet it is their flaws that somehow makes them so likeable.

As well as funny and enthralling, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is also utterly haunting. The fairies and their somewhat ambitious acts chilled me, and whenever the gentleman with thistledown hair took the stage I muttered "Oh please no."

As for the plot, too much must not be given away, but essentially, Mr. Norrell, the only practical magician in England for centuries, emerges from hiding and proceeds to make all sorts of wonders happen, and is soon joined by Jonathan Strange. Yet signs of the greatest mideval magician of all time's return, The Raven King, have found their way into into the story, while Stephen Black, an African servant, is held in thrall by a fairy.

Do not hesitate to buy it, it may be intimidatingly long, but I promise you, you won't want it to end.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Magical Achievements of a Noviate, April 12, 2007
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This review is from: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel (Mass Market Paperback)
Susanna Clarke's achievement in this, her first book, is quite remarkable: not only in this maiden effort does she master the diction and style we would sooner associate with Jane Austen and W. M. Thackeray (the two most famous chroniclers of the Regency setting of her novel), but she also creates an entire alternate fantasy history for England that presumes both a practical and theoretical tradition for magicians stretching all the way back to the first King Henry. What's more, the book becomes something of a page-turner after the first few chapters (more on those below), with long sequences that effectively evoke genuine suspense, horror, and pathos. And she is an absolutely marvelous scene-painter, particularly when it comes to the description of the magic her central characters effect (both for parlor tricks and for practical purposes). This is the sort of book in which you can pleasurably get lost for quite a few evenings: it's its own little world. To be able to do this with a first novel is extraordinary, and mirrors the achievement of Clarke's own hero Jonathan Strange.

With this in mind, it is important to point out too (as Mr. Norrell himself would) that a noviate is always apt to make errors, and Clarke, like Strange, does commit quite a number. The opening chapters move very slowly, though things pick up by the early chapter in York Minster (where Mr. Norrell first works his magic), and even further in the chapter entitled "Brest" (where Mr. Norrell first works it for practical purposes). Quite a bit of editing might have helped Clarke sharpen some of the novel's longeurs considerably, and there are some characters that don't seem to go much of anywhere, and not all the there are any number of loose ends at the end of the book (some of which are clearly intentional, but several others which just seem forgotten after they've been dropped). Nonetheless, I would happily read any other fiction by this writer, and hope (as she's promised) she returns to this world of her own making in her subsequent novels. There's so much here, including not only an alternate history for England but also Wellington, Byron, Lord Liverpool, Napoleon and (best of all) George III in all his kingly madness, that it's hard to be patient for her next full-length effort.

I would have awarded this a full five stars (even with my few exceptions to Clarke's novice's errors) had Tor Paperbacks issued this in a less miserably inconvenient format. Be aware that this novel is much too long to fit coveniently in a mass-market paperback form, and that the type is particularly hard to read. They should have issued it in three trade paperback volumes, as did the novel's British publisher, Bloomsbury Books.
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60 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something "Strange", September 11, 2004
Susanna Clarke dazzles in a subtle way in her debut novel, "Jonathan Clarke & Mr. Norrell," a startlingly original fantasy. No Dungeons & Dragons or Tolkien ripoffs here. Instead, a well-written, intelligent historical fantasy, which reportedly took Clarke a decade to write. With a story this rich, it was worth the wait.

It's the early 19th century, in England. The Napoleanic wars threaten England, but that's not the only struggle going on. Magic is all but dead in England; the so-called magicians don't actually want to handle it, but want to leave it to old books and stories. Once the English magicians were powerful and respected, but now they just write boring essays about magic. Except for Mr. Norrell, a cautious little Yorkshire man who taught himself how to do magic.

However, things take a twist when he gives his help in the battle against Napolean -- a new magician enters the scene, the enthusiastic and charming Jonathan Strange. The two magicians begin to work together, but things begin to go awry when Mr. Norrell realizes that Jonathan is attracted to all magic -- including the more dangerous varieties. He's increasingly fascinated by the legend of the Raven King, a changeling child who ruled Faerie and Earth...

Historical fantasies have rarely been as detailed and rich as this one -- usually either the "historic" or the "fantasy" is abused. Often the best authors can do is write alternate universe stories where America lost the Revolution, the Roman Empire never fell, and so on. But Susanna Clarke shatters that with her richly-realized look at 19th-century Britain, with unique magic and a slight mythologic twist.

Clarke keeps her writing solid, detailed and dignified, also footnoting extensively, with little wry winks and nudges to keep the book from being too serious. She has a flair for the historical parts of the book, keeping dates, battles, and political movement entwined in the plot. But she doesn't neglect the fantasy either; there's a mythic flavor in the story of the Raven King and the old magicians, reminiscent of old legends from ancient times. Her handling of magic is especially good -- less is more, and hints of past greatness make the magic all the more stunning.

The title characters are the best of the book -- both are products of their times. Mr. Norrell is cautious, studious, ingenious and quiet, the sort of person you could imagine having a talk with Ben Franklin. Strange has more of the wild, society-be-damned wit that characterized some great artists of that time. And Norrell's faithful servant is just one of many solid supporting characters.

If Jane Austen had written like Diana Wynne-Jones, the result would have been something like "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell." Well-written, enticing and thoroughly original, this is a keeper.
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35 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars the magic grows, October 18, 2004
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I don't believe anyone can write a reasonable review until they've finished a book - and this book is a beautiful example of why. I had a completely different opinion of the book at the end than at, say, 250 pages (where it seems not a few folks put this heavy tome down). You see, the book grows on you like a very subtle magic spell. This is how it went for me:

The first 150 pages, all about Mr Norrell, are fusty and tedious, just like he is. The tedium is broken by the footnotes which simply sparkle with promises of how big and complex Clarke's world will be. Several characters pulled me along - Vinculus is a marvelous gypsy full of life and tantalizing malice - and Childermass - well, could he be the mysterious Raven King or a secret magician?

In the next couple of hundred pages Jonathan Strange is introduced. Clarke refuses to moderate her idea of him - he should be romantic, but he simply can't be - he's just too true to the driven scientist - he only has one passion, and he doesn't even begin to get comfortable it until well on (i.e., magic).

The historical setting (heavy in the mid section of the book) is "litely" handled - but it does make one go to other sources to check out Wellington and Byron and King George - so there are fun history facts to check on.

And then, in the last third of the book, things really start to happen - the man with the thistledown hair is a fully realized villian, and his victims are indeed pitiable. (One of them, Steven Black, has a wrap-up that is worth the whole 800 pages.)

By the last 200 pages everything is just absolutely swimming along. Gads, Clarke even introduces a classic (perfect) heroine (Emma Greysteele)! Everyone is busy huffing and puffing to perfection. Small irritating people grow into bad guys, bland people start to really deserve rescuing, the magicians are brewing up real magic, and Good and Evil start to be recognizable. The ending is heart-thumping - everyone is busy busy busy interacting. The best part is that Dr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange have developed into a dual magical entity - it's quite wonderfully done.

So, after the first 150 pages I would have said the book was a 2. After 500 it was a 3. And by the end it was terrific - 4 stars! This is a book that you need to keep with 'til the end. Well done!
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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel by Susanna Clarke (Mass Market Paperback - August 1, 2006)
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