Books I Read: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2004
Content Rating: PG (there are a couple mildly freakish bits, like a woman's finger in a box, or dead men brought back to life, but nothing I wouldn't let my (older) kids read)

In early 19th-century England, the great magic of Merlin and the Raven King has disappeared. The only magicians left are merely theoretical -- men who call themselves magicians, but are more akin to historians than anything -- until Mr. Norrell. He's a stuffy, controlling, arrogant little man, but also a practical magician. And he desperately wants to restore magic to England. He is moderately successful when Jonathan Strange applies to be his pupil. Where Norrell is academic, Strange is showy and charismatic, and where Norrell fears the most powerful kinds of magic -- that of the faeries -- Strange believes that is who they should learn from most.

My friend who gave this to me characterized it as "Sense and Sensibility and Sorcery". What shines about this book are the two main characters and their relationship, both as friends and enemies. The story is as funny and charming as Strange, and as stuffy and academic as Norrell. By the latter, I mean that the story frequently tangents into vignettes of English magical history. For example, Norrell and Strange will be arguing about whether the Raven King is really gone forever, and Strange will say something like, "There are stories of people having seen him. What about the conquistador, the farmer in Yorkshire, or the girl in Manchester," and each of those will have a (sometimes very long) footnote relating the story he refers to.

These infodumps are very much part of the style of the book. They are very enjoyable, and they made the alternate history that much more believable, but there were times when I was tempted to skip them and continue with the story. (Oh, but you can't skip them. That's the secret.) This is not a thriller or a fast read (though it has a few exciting and frightening bits). This is a book to live in for a while, and to believe sometimes that maybe magic is real.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I sometimes wonder if the push for anti-info-dump and start-with-the-action writing doesn't do a disservice to literature in the greater sense.

Now, I'm no literary scholar (far from it), but whenever there is a "right" way to do something as subjective and artistic as writing, I start to wonder what's going on.

Fantasies like this aren't my gig, but I like the Sense and Sensibility comparison. Thanks for sharing! :)

Adam Heine said...

What's more is this is a debut novel. It breaks all the rules. Infodumps. Slow start. And it's her first novel (although it did take her 10 years to write).

This wouldn't normally be my gig either (I prefer something with more adventure in it), but my friend sent me a ton of books outside my normal reading material as a kind of support for me as a writer. I don't know if I would've finished it otherwise, but I'm glad I did.

Ricardo Bare said...

This book has been on my list for a while. Good reminder to pick it up and actually read it :)

Adam Heine said...

That reminds me of another rule it breaks: it's LONG. My friend had a hard time finding someone to bring it over for him :-)

L. T. Host said...

Thanks for this, Adam-- great recommendation, I think I'll go pick it up!

Victoria Dixon said...

I'm wrapping up this novel, so thank you for the lack of spoilers. ;D It has been a wonderful, though rambling read.

Adam Heine said...

LT: You're welcome.

Victoria: I try very hard to avoid spoilers. I'm glad it worked. "A wonderful, though rambling read." That's exactly it!

Barbara Martin said...

I have been meaning to read this book but never seem to get around to it as I have several ARCs on the go to review. This is an excellent reminder to do so. Very nice review, Adam.

It is great to read that a debut author was allowed to break the rules for her book. That provides an impetus for other aspiring writers to follow in her steps.

Although I am mainly interested in writing fantasy, I do incorporate other sub-genres within my work. Thus, I read regularly about those other genres as well as fantasy to provide a fresh look at what is selling and being published.

Adam Heine said...

I always learn something reading outside my normal interests. I think it's good to read outside one's genre every so often.

Myrna Foster said...

I've never heard of it before, and it sounds like I'd like it. Thanks!