2005; 850 pages. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Alternate History; British Historical Fiction; Dark Magic; Fantasy. Laurels: Shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award (2004) and the Guardian First Book Award (2004); winner of the Time Magazine’s Best Novel of the Year (2004), the British Book Awards Newcomer of the Year (2005), the Hugo Award (2005), the Locus Award – Best First Novel (2005), the Mythopoeic Award – Adult Literature (2005), and the World Fantasy Award (2005). Overall Rating : 7½*/10.
England has lost her magic. She’s apparently forgotten all about it somewhere along the line. This realization comes at a pretty bad time, too. Napoleon is kicking everybody’s butt over on the continent, and the reigning King of England is locked away in Windsor Castle because he’s stark raving mad. It would be nice if someone would brew up a potion or a spell to cure him, and whup up on Bonaparte while they're at it.
There are a couple of self-proclaimed wizards in England, most notably the “Learned Society of York Magicians”. But they’re “theoretical” magicians, devoted solely to combing through ancient books and manuscripts, looking for incantations and spells long gone. None of them has ever attempted to cast a spell, nor do they intend to.
There are also a couple of street wizards around, but they just use some cheap sleight-of-hand tricks to entertain poor street urchins for a pittance. The most famous one is Vinculus, but he looks more like a beggar, and has never done anything truly magical.
However, things are about to change. Some upstart named Mr. Gilbert Norrell has just moved to London, and he’s called out the theoretical magicians, much to their chagrin. He’s issued them a challenge. They are invited to meet him and watch him try to do some unequivocal feat of magic. If he fails, he’ll leave London at once and never bother them again.
But if he succeeds, the Learned Society of York Magicians must agree to disband forever and never call themselves magicians again.
What’s To Like...
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is divided into three “volumes”, namely:
Mr. Norrell (1%-24%),
Jonathan Strange (24%-58%), and,
John Uskglass (58%-93%).
These are not separate books, and this shouldn’t be considered a trilogy.
The novel is set in the early 1800’s (1806-1817, to be exact), mostly in England, but also with excursions to Portugal, Italy (primarily Venice and Padua), and an otherworldly place called “Faerie”. I liked that the fairies here are rather evil creatures, making them much more interesting than if they were Tinkerbells. Terry Pratchett would be proud.
The book is billed as a Fantasy, which is why I picked it up. But as the title hints, it is really more about the relationship between the two protagonists. Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell have different personalities, different views on the history of English magic, and different ways of becoming proficient in it.
The book is written in 1800’s English, which didn’t bother me, although the author seemed to find any excuse possible to use the words “chuse”, “surprized”, and “connexions”. I liked the usage of other archaic words, such as shewed, dropt, sopha, learnt, stopt, popt, headach, ancles, scissars, standers-by, and learnt. But I can see where this might get tiresome for some readers.
The primary storyline theme of the book is: why is there no more magic in England, and what can be done to recover it? Each protagonist has his own opinions on this. Jonathan Strange argues that there is a pressing need to learn magic, since there are damsels to save and a French dictator to defeat. Mr. Norrell, urges caution since one doesn't know what sort of beasties might be unintentionally unleashed by the casting of spells.
The book is also Historical Fiction, and I thought this was done quite well. It was fun to get the “feel” for how the Napoleonic wars were conducted, and in times of peace, how travelers passed the time while vacationing in Italy and other parts of western Europe.
There are some drawings scattered throughout the text; they were a nice touch. I can relate to Mr. Norrell’s book-hoarding, and I enjoyed visiting Shrewsbury (where Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series is set), and Windsor Castle, which I’ve walked through. The ending ties up most of the main story threads, including the identity of the man with the thistle-down hair. There is one major plot thread left unresolved, which could conceivably be developed into a sequel. But I don’t think Susanna Clarke has any plans to write one.
Kewlest New Word…
Quern (n.) : a simple hand mill for grinding grain, typically consisting of two circular stones, the upper of which is rubbed to and fro on the lower one.
Others : Phaeton (n.)
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell presently sells for $8.54 at Amazon. ANAICT, Susanna Clarke has only one other novel available as an e-book there, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which is a collection of short stories, some of which are set in the same world as this book. It is priced at $9.99.
It had never occurred to him before that Strange would need books in Portugal. The idea of forty precious volumes being taken into a country in a state of war where they might get burnt, blown up, drowned or dusty was almost too horrible to contemplate. Mr. Norrell did not know a great deal about war, but he suspected that soldiers are not generally your great respecters of books. They might put their dirty fingers on them. They might tear them! They might – horrors of horrors! – read them and try the spells! Could soldiers read? Mr. Norrell did not know. (loc. 5053)
“Go to the store-room at the foot of the kitchen-stairs. In the chest under the window you will find lead chains, lead padlocks and lead keys. Bring them here! Quickly!”
“And I will go and fetch a pair of pistols,” declared Lascelles.
“They will do no good,” said Mr. Norrell.
“Oh! You would be surprized how many problems a pair of pistols can solve!” (loc. 12826)
She wore a gown the colour of storms, shadows and rain and a necklace of broken promises and regrets. (loc. 2689)
As shown in the header of this review, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was nominated for, and often won, all sorts of literary awards in 2004-05, and there are a slew of reviews at Amazon and Goodreads overflowing with gushing praise. Yet, for me the book was a let-down. Outside of fairies and wizards, there are very few otherworldly critters to meet and greet, and for the majority of the book, the magic is rather tame.
There are a slew of characters introduced, probably close to a hundred in all. That in itself is okay since this is an 850-page epic, but putting a Cast of Characters at the beginning of the book would have been a real plus. There are also a slew of footnotes, which worked well, but seemed to be there mostly to make the Alternate History storyline seem convincing. For me, it didn’t succeed.
But my biggest issue with JS&MN is the pacing. Despite being well-written, and an easy read, I found it to be a slow-go. Volumes 1 and 2 seemed to get bogged down with way too many descriptions, plot tangents, and people and places that had no later impact on the storyline.
There is good news, however. If you can stick it out until about 70%-Kindle or so, everything comes into focus deftly, and the pacing picks up significantly. It probably sounds like a cliché, but if the first 500 pages had been skillfully edited to half their content, this would’ve been a dynamite read.
7½ Stars. In summary, if you’re someone who typically reads Jane Eyre or David Copperfield and want to expand your literary horizons to include Fantasy novels, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell might thoroughly thrill you. OTOH, if you typically read Harry Potter or LOTR, and want to read something a bit more highbrow, this might be a bit of a slog.