Sunday, January 4, 2009

"Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" - Susanna Clarke

This book has been called fantasy, alternate history, and science fiction, but at its heart is the simple story of two English magicians who have very different beliefs in how magic should be conducted in the early 1800s.

Mr. Norrell fosters knowledge, feasting upon thousands of archaic books about magic. He believes all magic can be learned from books, yet he does not share his library with anyone except his servant.

Jonathan Strange, on the other hand, believes that the only way to understand magic is to practice it. As Mr. Norrell's pupil, he becomes frustrated, and eventually leaves to begin binding spells and creating his own incantations. This makes Norrell furious.

Add in a nasty faerie who manipulates both magicians, and the book becomes an 800-plus tome that uses names and places from the time (Lord Byron, for example) and well as footnotes from fictitious sources.

Many critics believe that this is the best fantasy book (geared toward adults - geez, we don't want to piss off the Potter-lovers) to come from England in decades. Perhaps. It's not my specialty. But, as a reader, I would drop this heavy book whenever something new and shiny came within armslength. I could always pick it up again and blend back into the narrative. The first is negative, the second is positive, so I'm reluctant to pick a side. It may be easiest to state that this novel is memorable, yet disposable.

I'm glad I finally finished it after an on and off affair of eight months.

3.5 out of 5.0 Black Magics.


moonrat said...

Thanks for the review. I loved this book, and I made both my parents read it. They have since bought copies for just about everyone they know. But we're a very fantasy-sensitive family, and I've heard a lot of other middling reviews (or ambivalent reviews, like yours).

It's one of those situations where there's really no plot arc, which I know is troublesome for some people. But I loved her compositions so much I just wanted to keep reading and reading, and probably would have read another 600 pages had she written them.

Kristin Dodge said...

I had read your review, so I wondered about the difference in opinion. Do you think that the use of mini-plots (like every 200 pages was a novella, though there was an over-reaching theme) was effective? Or did you like the use of bibliographic notes? Those charmed me for the first 200 pages.

Brian Keaney said...

I thought the writing was often both witty and elegant - something not always characteristic of fantasy. I also thought that the magic described was highly original. Describing magic is not an easy task, after all. But she managed to sidestep the cliches neatly.

freddie said...

I've only read three chapters so far, but I'm sort of in love with this book. And I'm a Potter fan, too.

moonrat said...

Kristin--I loved the foot notes, and although the book was long I was carried away enough by her writing style that it didn't lose my engagement.