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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Paperback – 2005
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Time magazine’s #1 book of the year • 11 weeks and counting on the New York Times bestseller list • Shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award • Longlisted for the Booker prize • A Book Sense pick • People Top Ten Books of the year • Salon.com Top Ten of 2004 • New York Times Notable Books of the Year • Christian Science Monitor Best Fiction 2004 • Nancy Pearl’s Top 12 Books of 2004 • Washington Post Book World Best of 2004 • San Francisco Chronicle Best Books of 2004 • Chicago Tribune Best of 2004 • Seattle Times 25 Best Books of 2004 • Atlanta Journal-Constitution Top 12 Books of 2004 • Village Voice “Top Shelf” • Raleigh News & Observer Best of 2004 • Rocky Mountain News critics’ favorites of 2004 • Kansas City Star 100 Noteworthy Books of 2004 • Fort Worth Star-Telegram 10 Best Books of 2004 • Hartford Courant Best Books of 2004
Susanna Clarke’s brilliant first novel is an utterly compelling epic tale of nineteenth-century England and the two very different magicians who, as teacher and pupil and then as rivals, emerge to change its history. Sold in 21 languages, with a major motion picture from New Line on the way, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a tour de force that has captured the imagination of readers worldwide.
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That is a very rough description of a 1000 page book. Truthfully, there’s a whole lot more going on but to say too much would be leading me into giving away spoilers.
As already mentioned, this is a very long book. In fact, it’s divided into three books, each named after the important magicians in the story (Strange, Norrell, and the long ago Raven King). A warning here – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is slowly paced and slow burning. The action and pace don’t pick up until the climax in the last hundred pages or so.
So why, might you ask, would I read a book with 900 pages of build up? Because that build up is so enjoyable. Susanna Clarke is an excellent writer (she’s using the style of classic nineteenth century authors), and her writing is not without humor. I was not at all expecting it, but often I would laugh out load upon reading a line. Take this quote for instance:
“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.”
I love the footnotes as well. Sometimes they’re just explaining a reference to a magical text, but often they are stories within a story, like the fairy tale about the Master of Nottingham’s daughter and her quest to retrieve the magic ring. Other times she uses footnotes (as well as in text commentary) to skewer the prejudices of the age. There’s a certain irony in that Strange and Norrell are acceptable magicians because they are gentlemen, even though others such as Childermass would probably make just as good or better magicians.
If you pick this one up, you’ve got to have at least some interest in history or a liking of classic English writing like Jane Austin. If you’re looking for the usual action adventure, medieval world type fantasy, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is not for you. If you’re looking for something different, an original fantasy book, than this is the book for you.
The book is divided into three main sections - Mr Norrell, Jonathan Strange and John Uskglass. In this alternate England, magic had been lost to time and such and thus the only magicians were scholarly ones who would meet from time to time to discuss theoretical magic. The loss of magic in England had something to do with the departure of John Uskglass, also known as the Raven King who once ruled England and Faerie.
All that changes when one of the magical societies learns of the existence of Mr. Norrell, who is rumored to be able to perform practical magic. The group eventually verifies this for himself but in time Norrell calls for the magical societies to be disbanded and that only practical magicians (namely himself) can perform magic. And as Norrell is asked to perform various magical feats from time to time and he eventually takes on an apprentice in the form of Jonathan Strange. And the other twist involves a certain Gentleman that Norrell manages to summon that may mean pretty bad things in the long run.
The book is approached like one of the scholarly texts of magic that Norrell has hoarded in his collection of magical books. It has a crazy number of footnotes that refer to a bunch of other fictional books of magical history and various other anecdotes from the fictional historical England that was once defined by magic. At times it's all interesting and clever. At other times it feels like a lot of reading additional material that might be helpful but also doesn't always impact the overall story. This is where a lot of my difficulty derived from - the need to go back and forth between footnotes and the story itself in order to get the full experience of this book.
I see now that the TV mini-series did an amazing job of bringing this story to life in a manner that is more easily approached by readers. Things were a bit of a struggle across the first two volumes of the book but I'll concede things did pick up a bit in the last volume. But hey, that's where the big climax was and a fair amount of interesting magic, so it's only natural.
The book's tone sort of toggles between the scholarly part of things and the fantasy escapism we look for in such books. And it's not like there's a heck of a lot of magic in the book. It's just that you have the heavy scholarly bits balanced against the not so heavy bits that aren't necessarily lighter. It's a great story and some compelling writing but it's also a lot of work to get through.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a very detailed depiction of an England with a grand legacy of magic. It's also a daring adventure in its own right against an unseen foe and a prophecy that is fated to be fulfilled.