Friday, January 07, 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell


Well, it was long. Over 1000 pages, and it took me a very long time to read (it's been a few months since I first cracked it open). It sat on my shelf numerous times as I read other books. I wasn't really compelled to read it, and there were days when I would only read a chapter at a time.

It seems like I am composing its death sentence here, yes? It sounds like it's not worth the effort, right? On the contrary...

This book was excellent. BUT. It is not for everyone. Let me just start by saying that many online reviewers have pegged Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as "Harry Potter for adults."

No no no no no. NO.

The only thing that this book shares with Harry Potter is magic. And that is all. And it certainly isn't the same kind of magic found in Harry Potter. If you want a quick read, then... well, read Harry Potter. This is not a quick or easy read. It is difficult and time-consuming, and it must be read very carefully (there are footnotes, people. Footnotes!), but it is SO worth it.

Susanna Clarke has created a masterpiece that feels like a historical text at times (she uses people and events from history, like Napoleon, Lord Wellington, and the Battle of Waterloo), and like fantasy at others (faeries, other worlds, incantations). And concurrently, by diligently sticking to the social norms of the time, she has created a text in the style of Jane Austen. It is unlike anything I have ever read.

JS&MN is - to completely overuse the word - magical. Its writing is absolutely superb. There were slow parts, yes, but Clarke's prose made even the dullest subjects interesting. The social commentary, the historical details, and above all else, the character development, make this book one of the best I've read in years.

What is about, you ask?


Set in the early 19th century, magic has been absent from England for hundreds of years. The mysterious departure of the Raven King, a man brought up in the land of Faerie, removed magic from the lands. Learned men study theoretical magic, but no one has actually been able to practice magic - not for lack of trying, however. They are just unable to make magic work.

When Gilbert Norrell sweeps into London from Yorkshire, determined to prove that he is the only worthy magician in all of England, he demands that all theoretical magicians cease their studies immediately. With help, he quickly climbs the social and political ladder, proving himself indispensable to both the Prime Minister and Lord Wellington. His popularity is at an all time high after performing magic to help a man and his new bride.

But when Jonathan Strange enters his circle and grabs London's attention, Norrell seeks him out immediately. You see, Strange announced that he, too, is a magician, and Strange is threatened. Strange becomes Norrell's student, and while Strange is eager to make advances in his studies, Norrell cuts him off from his famed Yorkshire library, limiting Strange to theoretical texts only.

And the practice of magic is strictly forbidden.

As you might imagine, Strange does not take well to this prohibition and before long, the plot thickens, as they say. Strange begins dabbling in darker forms of magic and soon the world around him changes, his loved ones change, and he puts the whole of Europe in a panic.

Norrell is a fascinating character in that his pride and social ineptness have removed him from society and severely limit his abilities to be a leader. When challenged, as he soon is, he retreats into a world of secrets and refuses to give up power. He desires change, but is terrified to return to the past -- the past of the powerful Raven King.

Strange also desires change, but he will stop at nothing to get it.

Don't let yourself revert back to college by ignoring footnotes -- the information included there is almost always important to the plot, because it includes stories and lore of the Raven King's past. (Not a spoiler - the Raven King is kind of a big deal.)

I can say with all certainty that some people are going to be underwhelmed with this book. It moves slowly, plot points seem to fade away, and there doesn't seem to be much going on. At the same time, others will gobble this book up.

If you feel yourself losing interest, or wondering when it's going to pick up the pace, do try to stick with it. It is immensely rewarding.

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