Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

May 4, 2006

I've been looking forward to writing the review of this book since about 1/4 of the way through it when I could no longer deny the fact that Clarke is a better writer than I could ever hope to be.

And it made me mad.

Normally I just read fiction for entertainment and pay no attention to the skill of the writer unless it's glaringly bad.  I'm the same way at movies.  Unless the entertainment is really really bad or really really good, I just sit and enjoy it with brain functions at a minimum.

Susanna Clarke just gave me 782 pages of "Woah, this lady is GOOD."

For a long time I have thought that new fantasy novels could not be entertaining nor original in content. How many elves who speak breathily and have pointed ears can you have?  The orcs are bad, dwarfs like caves, and wizards are able to do magical things for no apparent reason.  Everybody knows it, and it's been done.  I felt that this horse had been beaten so many times by so many awful authors that there could never be anything good come of the fantasy genre.  Maybe this is why I'm enraged at Clarke. 

I can't really decide how to relate the story.  There are stories within stories – and footnotes to give you more in-depth knowledge about whatever subject some one or another has brought up.  I kept thinking to myself "how in the world did she come up with that?"  Even the little asides are creamythick with story-telling goodness. The story is complex, frightening, engaging and written so convincingly that you start to wonder how much is real.  Aren't there societies of magicians in the early 1800s?  If there were magic, wouldn't it work about like that?  I found myself wondering if, by reading the book, somebody was casting a spell on me to make me read more.

But only once or twice.

Which made me mad at Clarke.

And then I gave in to the bidding of the book…

(this kind of comment reminds me of those radical religious people who burn harry potter books.   I hope they don't get ahold of this review.)

From the opening of the book:

Some years ago there was inthe city of York a society of magicians.  They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers on the history of English Magic.

They were gentlemen-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – nor even done any one the slightest good.  In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one's head.  But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

A great magician has said of his profession that it's practicioners "…must pound and rack their brains to make the least learning go in, but quarrelling always comes very naturally to them." and the York magicians had proved the truth of this for a number of years.

In the autumn of 1806 they recieved an addition in a gentleman called John Segundus.  At the first meeting that he attended Mr. Segundus rose and addressed the society.  He first began by complimenting the gentlemen upon their distinguished history; he listed the many celebrated magicians and historians that had at one time or another belonged to the York society.  He hinted that it had been no small inducement to him in coming to York to know of the existence of such a society.  Northern magicians, he reminded his audience, had always been better respected than southern ones.  Mr Segundus said that he had studied magic for many years and knew the histories of all the great magicians of long ago.  He read the new publications upon the subject and had even made a modest contribution to their number, but recently he had begun to wonder why the great feats of magic that he had read about remaind on the pages of his book and were no longer seen in the street or written about in the newspapers.   Mr. Segundus wished to  know why modern magicians were unable to work the magic they wrote about.  In short, he wished to know why there was no more magic done in England.

Mr. Norrell has his ideas.  Jonathan Strange has his ideas.  There is much of pride, contention, love, compassion, and fear as these two (the only true, practicing magicians in the age) find their lives spun around in politics, friendship, greed, the plotting of evil men, and the prophecies of the mysterious Raven King of ages past – The greatest human magician to have lived.  (not counting merlin who, all scholars and theoretical magicians will agree on this point, was half demon.)  

The storytelling is masterful and damned convincing, and the author ties the reader into knots as you get to see all sides of a disturbing story unfold.  Is there magic?  What is it?  Why don't we have it any more? Are there magical creatures?  Just because a thing is prophesied, does it have to happen?  The characters are every bit as developed and wonderful and frustrating as are real people, which only serves to make you love and hate the book more.  You will start to have emotional responses to fictional characters.  You'll start to think in 1800's-speak.  You'll start to worry that random little things could lead you to being caught in some kind of sinister enchantment.  And you'll never ever want to be polite to or have any kind of conversation with any kind of fairy thing, should you come across one.

She ought to lose a point just for ruining the human/fairy relations our nations have been building for so many years.

If you hated harry potter, this is the book for you.

In fact, I would say that if there was ever any part of you that liked any fantasy at all… this is the book for you. 

We'll give Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell a smashing 4.7 on a scale of -5 to 5.


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