NOT a real-time review: Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

i know i said Justina Robson, but i've been too busy with other things lately to properly wrap my head around Natural History, so, to tide over any review hungry lurkers out there, here's a short review i wrote a while back that my friend Elmer over at Fu magazine informs me they just published in their latest ish. find copies at your nearest Seattle's Best Coffee or Figaro branch.* it's free.

and watch this space for something cool in the near future. honest.

right. enjoy. or not.

*anyone who's read the printed version might notice a small but significant mistake i hadn't caught until i re-read my review here. in the printed version, i compared Ms Clarke's novel to books written in the 18th century, when in fact, Ms Clarke uses a distinctly Victorian voice, which places the style squarely in the 19th century. my apologies to Ms Clarke, and to anyone who was in any way misled by my error.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

By Susanna Clarke

While the Study of Magic remains a perfectly acceptable gentlemanly pursuit, as far as “modern” magicians are concerned, English Magic hasn’t worked for centuries; not since the mysterious figure known as the Raven King stepped out of history into that peculiar realm of faerie tale, legend and myth. The “modern” gentleman magician has therefore learned to content himself with “theoretical” magic, and a legitimate member of the York Society of Magicians, the most respected organization of gentlemen engaged in the Study of Magic of the day, could hardly be expected to even attempt anything so laughable as to actually “practice” magic.

Until, that is, the arrival of two magicians, who would, as prophesied by a suitably ragged and odious street conjuror of dubious magical ability, bring about the Restoration of English Magic.

Into all this fantastically drawn Englishness, Ms Clarke introduces us to two of the most engaging characters to emerge in fiction in recent years: the charming Jonathan Strange and the rather refreshingly unsympathetic personage of Gilbert Norrell. The eponymous characters alone make it all worth the price of admission, but the charm of the novel isn’t confined to the two protagonists. All the other characters leap just as lithely off the page, and while it’s true that some characters commit undeniably vile acts and others genuinely heroic ones, Ms. Clarke lets their deeds speak for her, never submitting to the temptation of pointing out the villains from the heroes, allowing each character equal opportunity for developing a special bond with the reader.

But the one who most threatens to steal the limelight from the main protagonists is Ms Clarke herself. Though the narrator never unforgivably intrudes into the narrative, her “mannered” style of writing, garnished with a liberal sprinkling of “scholarly” footnotes designed to tell stories within the story and enrich the book’s internal reality, may be a bit excessive for some readers. Imagine Jane Austen if she’d written an epic-length genre-fantasy illuminated with the kind of footnotes that are as likely to be found in dull 19th century social treatises as in Terry Pratchett’s wildly successful Discworld novels. However, perseverance has its rewards. The writing is always graceful, the footnoted digressions never fail to entertain, and the steadily building pace eventually sweeps the reader along with the story. In the end, the reader is drawn willingly from one chapter to the next, until he or she has nowhere left to go and nothing else to do but reluctantly turn the last page and finally close the book. Or, quite possibly, read it all again.

This book is a delightful dance of characters and events, an alluring blend of fantasy and history, social commentary and satire that is intricate without being confusing, intelligent without being forbidding.

What it amounts to, in summary, is an 19th century novel of manners written with unobtrusive yet definite 21st century sensibilities.

And Magic. Large, heaping dollops of it. And that’s a good thing.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, originally published as a single volume, is also available from Bloomsbury books in a more manageable boxed set of three volumes.

If you liked Ms Clarke’s novel, you might also enjoy:

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

The Baroque Trilogy (Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World) by Neal Stephenson

The Penultimate Peril, book the twelfth of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

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