Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: September 8th, 2004
Format Read: Hard Copy
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England’s history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England–until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.
Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.
I first read this book as a young thing, desperately hunting through my family bookshelf for anything fantasy-esque to read. I choose to review it now, thanks to BBC and their tv series based off of the book–I haven’t seen it yet, but anything made by the BBC has my vote of confidence.
Also because my mom put it on our Amazon cloud. Funny story about this book and my mom: although at this point she has MULTIPLE COPIES, I do not know if she has ever read past the first chapter. It’s probably going to be one of those books that is on her perpetual to-read list, without ever making it onto the read list.
To be fair, the first few chapters are a bit difficult to get through. And the book is an actual brick…roughly the size of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, AKA enormous. And it starts off slowly…you meet the Society of York Magicians, you slowly get introduced to Mr. Norrell, you observe him flailing about in London Society, etc. Especially since here the main character is a petulant, fussy, mildly malicious older man, it can be hard to get into. However, I urge you all to keep reading, because these chapters are vital and soon there will be more interesting activities.
Things pick up quite a lot as soon as you meet Strange, which is somewhere around 20% of the way through. There is a reason they are both title characters, because they are the dynamic duo of magicians, but I think everyone who has ever read the book prefers Strange. He’s younger, more adventurous, a total eccentric, and highly emotional. That being said, there is about a quarter of the book where you can only sigh about his utter recklessness and disregard for his own well-being–and also his idiocy. Both Strange and Norrell are flawed characters, there’s no doubting that. But both, in their own ways, are endearingly so.
Beyond the title characters, there is a huge variety of well fleshed-out secondary characters. My favorites are probably a tie between Stephen Black and Childermass, both servants who are much more than they appear, although all are just as captivating. Sir Walter, Lady Pole, Arabella Strange, John Segundus…all have a role to play in the highly complex story, and not a single one of them can be described as flat.
I also like that although there is something of a bad character, the ones at fault are JUST as likely to be Norrell and Strange as this person. They both make extreme blunders that make all of the sadness and destruction possible. They argue and split. BUT, in the end, they rally again. There is no character that is fully good (OK, maybe Arabella). There are more than a few characters who seem harmless up until they cause someone to die, or suchlike. But, even so, there is only one character change that I have yet to see not smoothly progress throughout the course of the book.
Attention also needs to be given to the plot. Yes, the book is a brick. It might could have managed to be a little shorter. But it is also basically an epic, covering TEN YEARS. It is meticulously detailed, covering a grey area between historical fiction and fantasy, and really works to set the mood. We have the Napoleonic Wars, Wellington and Waterloo, Mad King George, Byron–plus Clarke’s fantastic inventions, such as the Raven King. There is so very, very much detail that it will delight the hearts of the historically and fantastically minded (AKA, me). It also means that you really feel pulled into the world. The amount of detail also means a really in-depth atmosphere to luxuriate in.
Plus, footnotes. I happen to be a real fan of footnotes, they just make me happy.
There are a few things I can mention–for example, the length. I love it, because it gives the author full rein to place all of those wonderful details in, but I hate it, because it is impossible to just casually stick this book in a bag and take it with you. Fortunately, Amazon and its wonderful technology has gone some way towards fixing this. Also, like I said, it’s difficult to get into. But once you surpass both of those obstacles, what you get is a really delightful English fantasy novel.
I mean, it’s so good the BBC is making a TV series out of it. Which, have no doubt, I will watch the INSTANT I am able to.
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Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.