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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Paperback – August 11, 2005
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It's 1808 and that Corsican upstart Napoleon is battering the English army and navy. Enter Mr. Norrell, a fusty but ambitious scholar from the Yorkshire countryside and the first practical magician in hundreds of years. What better way to demonstrate his revival of British magic than to change the course of the Napoleonic wars? Susanna Clarke's ingenious first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, has the cleverness and lightness of touch of the Harry Potter series, but is less a fairy tale of good versus evil than a fantastic comedy of manners, complete with elaborate false footnotes, occasional period spellings, and a dense, lively mythology teeming beneath the narrative. Mr. Norrell moves to London to establish his influence in government circles, devising such powerful illusions as an 11-day blockade of French ports by English ships fabricated from rainwater. But however skillful his magic, his vanity provides an Achilles heel, and the differing ambitions of his more glamorous apprentice, Jonathan Strange, threaten to topple all that Mr. Norrell has achieved. A sparkling debut from Susanna Clarke--and it's not all fairy dust. --Regina Marler --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
The drawing room social comedies of early 19th-century Britain are infused with the powerful forces of English folklore and fantasy in this extraordinary novel of two magicians who attempt to restore English magic in the age of Napoleon. In Clarke's world, gentlemen scholars pore over the magical history of England, which is dominated by the Raven King, a human who mastered magic from the lands of faerie. The study is purely theoretical until Mr. Norrell, a reclusive, mistrustful bookworm, reveals that he is capable of producing magic and becomes the toast of London society, while an impetuous young aristocrat named Jonathan Strange tumbles into the practice, too, and finds himself quickly mastering it. Though irritated by the reticent Norrell, Strange becomes the magician's first pupil, and the British government is soon using their skills. Mr. Strange serves under Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars (in a series of wonderful historical scenes), but afterward the younger magician finds himself unable to accept Norrell's restrictive views of magic's proper place and sets out to create a new age of magic by himself. Clarke manages to portray magic as both a believably complex and tedious labor, and an eerie world of signs and wonders where every object may have secret meaning. London politics and talking stones are portrayed with equal realism and seem indisputably part of the same England, as signs indicate that the Raven King may return. The chock-full, old-fashioned narrative (supplemented with deft footnotes to fill in the ignorant reader on incidents in magical history) may seem a bit stiff and mannered at first, but immersion in the mesmerizing story reveals its intimacy, humor and insight, and will enchant readers of fantasy and literary fiction alike.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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 nature of this book was interesting. It weaves a tale regarding two practical magicians restoring magic to England during the time of Napoleon, where currently magic is only a theoretical affair. Being a person that quite enjoys tales of magic, I found this novel enjoyable but was nonplussed by the frequent tangents it would dwell upon. I have a few thoughts on the theme which I will share later in this review, but I quite liked how S. Clarke expressed these themes. I was also taken in by the use of clever diction and tone that is prevalent throughout the novel.
S. Clarke utilized a cunning tone, which may be described as very British. She employed a semi-omniscient narrative with a dry humorous undertone. This managed my attention gripped on the events that were occurring. I appreciated the careful attention to detail that S. Clarke took upon transcribing her words to page. This level of preciseness made the book appear crafted like a fine piece of carpentry, complete with elaborate scrollwork. In completeness, it left me with a sense of awe at her dedication.
This type of meticulous care and dedication can be seen in the main character Mr. Norrell. He is the epitome of scholar, the type where study is all consuming and often takes a dislike to what we might consider ‘fun’. Jonathon Strange, on the other hand, is what we might consider the natural. He does not need to apply himself so thoroughly, as his colleague Mr. Norrell, to the study of magic, but rather can simply learn by simple observation. Together they represent, what I consider a major theme in the book. The war of creativity versus the stiff regulations of order. I have observed that we often are lead to assume that these are two attributes that repel each other, but S. Clarke’s novel infers that in order to create true magic, the two must complement each other. S. Clarke incorporated this theme very well into the pages of the story. There were other themes of which I shall not write further, but I found them all interesting and provide further reflection if I were to choose to read through the book again. I will mention that these other themes revolve around Fairies and their relationships with other characters in the book.
I consider the largest failing is the pacing of the story. I would find myself reading through a section that felt overly long and only tangentially related to the main narrative. If it were not for the tone, I would not have progressed through the first half of the novel. S. Clarke could have perhaps applied more focus to what mattered to the overall tale, which would have made the experience more enjoyable for myself (I can only speak to my preferences).
S. Clarke finished the novel in a very satisfactory way. This is something which she should be praised extensively. I often find that other authors struggle with finding a proper conclusion to their novels. At the end of this novel I was quite pleased with the conclusion and left feeling satisfied. It was like the young bear’s porridge, ‘it was just right.’ I will advise to other readers that the ending is not the happy fairy tale ending that is often seen in Fantasy but neither is it a miserable ending.
Susanna Clark wrote a most enjoyable novel. Her masterful use of diction helped create a unique tone which furthered my desire to finish the novel. This combined with extremely thoughtful themes provided excellent mental nourishment. While the pacing does meander at times, it did not distract too heavily upon my ability to follow the story. I happily recommend this novel for my readers and would be pleased to see your own thoughts on it.