I first came upon Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (by Susanna Clarke) on Netflix. I saw the mini-series and was immediately fascinated by the combination of revisionist history, Victorian England, and magic. Luckily, the show is based on a book—isn’t that always the way?—and I wasted no time immersing myself within it.
It’s 19th-century England, and practicing magicians are a people of the past. The ones you find now are theoretic. Basically, they read about magic and talk about it; they don’t actually do it. But then two practical magicians are revealed, and they begin to use their abilities for the good of England. The problem is that magic has a dark side that leads back to the infamous Raven King. While one magician wants to explore this ancient magic, the other wants to explore it, a dichotomy that’s complicated by the emergence of a malevolent fairy.
This book is somewhat revisionist, as in Clarke pretends that magic and magicians have always been a part of England’s past. In fact, she creates an entire history hinted at in footnotes. This is one of the parts I love: footnotes that give this the feel of a real history. And they’re so involved. Clarke had to do some serious worldbuilding, maybe not to the extend of The Silmarillion or Lord of the Rings, but certainly more involved than most fantasy.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are complete opposites. One is naturally talented and laissez-faire, while Mr. Norrell is organized and disciplined. Of the two, Jonathan Strange is my favorite. I love his character, so much depth. Childermass and The Gentleman are also very fascinating. Clarke has a way of making a peripheral or minor character as interesting as the main ones.
The plot line is meandering at best. Remember, this is portrayed as a history, so there’s no clear progression of events. On one hand, this type of plot really bothers me; on the other, it includes interesting historical events such as the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo. It’s one of those books that you just have to get into and enjoy the ride, wherever it takes you.
Like the plot line, the writing can be a little dry, boring at parts. But it’s all part of the historical fiction fantasy style. Even so, there were some beautiful moments:
“She wore a gown the color of storms, shadows, and rain and a necklace of broken promises and regrets.”
The 19th-century-style English gives the writing a classic beauty, like that which you find in some of the best Dickens novels.
I loved this book. It was unique and interesting with unique and interesting characters. I really have three complaints. First, the length. Over 1,000 pages is far too long. Second is Jonathan and Arabella’s relationship. I found it lacking there toward the end. Finally, there was the cliffhanger and a real expectation of a sequel (which Clarke has confirmed that there will be) that hasn’t materialized in 15 years. Other than that, this was a fresh take on fantasy and history.