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Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

By / August 25, 2012 / no comments

Magical Britain has been dormant for centuries; there have been no practicing magicians in living memory. Until now that is. The magician Mr. Norrell is brought from seclusion by a combination of a vain, scholarly desire for recognition, an irritable contempt for so called ‘theoretical magicians’, amateur historians with a passion for the supposedly vanished magical arts, and an ambitious plan to restore magic to the British Isles. He is soon joined by Jonathan Strange, his younger, more glamorous pupil. As partner and rivals they shape the events of the early 19th century around them. From influencing the poetry of Lord Byron to aiding the war effort on the continent the two stride through an intricate recreation of history. And though the plot wallows in occasional doldrums, the story does not begin in earnest until around page 200; this is the result of an admirable conceit and is entirely excusable.

Both Strange and Norrell see a world in decline whose vitality may only be restored by a magical renaissance, but the question of how becomes divisive; should modern magicians aim to bury the past or recreate it? At times both also consort with the fae, whimsical, capricious, duplicitous beings whose dreamlike world is a mad counterpoint to our own and who sow chaos in the lives of the characters.

Complementing this body of allegory and allusion is the superb cast that inhabits Clarke’s England, including historical figures like the Duke of Wellington and King George III. Norrell and Strange, the books titular characters, dominate the narrative, Norrell receiving the lion’s share of attention the first half while Strange is brought to the fore for the second. Norrell is an interesting choice in a protagonist; he’s vain, arrogant, dictatorial, a scholar who buries history and discredits rivals in an effort to make reality conform to his preferences. And the author makes no attempt to obscure these traits. Instead she writes for him on a peculiar journey from protagonist, through a period as the fatally flawed hero of a minor tragedy, to a petty and sad villain and back again. Strange is a better hero, or at least one who is easier to like. He’s a simple character to start with, naïve and ignorant of hardship. While his courage and his willingness to strive for his grand ambitions are endearing.

The anachronistic style of the novel can be tiresome at times, in particular during the novel’s early stages, and will likely alienate some readers. It’s certain that by the end of it many readers will find themselves with an irrational hatred of drawing rooms and the private lives of the English upper crust. But Clarke goes to great lengths to enliven every scene. Her subtle, dry wit is everywhere. The novel also employs detailed and surprisingly interesting footnotes of a scholarly bent, describing the historical background of particular events or statements. The short dissertations on magic and its history help bring the setting to life and give the world a historical depth. Clarke’s descriptions of the faerie world are perfect, an engaging combination of dreamlike surrealism viewed through a prism of madness.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell novel certainly isn’t for everybody; for some the beginning will be too slow and many would suggest that a more thoroughgoing editor would lead to a marked improvement. Perhaps they’re correct. But for those willing to take the time it will prove to be an entirely worthwhile experience. Anyone who is looking for a fresh take on the fantasy genre, a touching, character driven epic with an eccentric emphasis on scholarship and madness should take a look. Fans of historical romance or period fiction wanting to see a fascinating piece of British history through new eyes should likewise keep their eyes peeled for a copy.

 

“This review was written by anonymous fantasy reviewer for www.bestfantasybooks.com

About the author

Ben

Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!

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