Saturday, 12 February 2005

Book Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)

Time to get cracking on the review for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, so as always, I shall post a mini-review here, which usually consists of points I shall be putting in my PROPER review. :-)

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Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke

Synopsis:
Two magicians shall appear in England.
The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me.

The year is 1806. England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation's past.

But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French.

Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very opposite of Norrell.

So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms the one between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.


Main characters:

  • Mr. Norrell: One of two English magicians who is destined to restore magic to England. Mr Norrell is dry, boring, secretive, uncharismatic, petty, and a great foil to Jonathan Strange.
  • Jonathan Strange: The second English magician destined to restore magic to England. Strange is... well, strange, and is excitable, eccentric and affable, but is also prone to over-streching himself.

What I liked

  • The concept of slotting magic effectively into the real world is good enough, but interspacing it with REAL historical events like Waterloo, and adding real historical characters like Lord Byron, the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon was just brilliant.
  • The two main characters are so different that it is fun to just read about their interactions.
  • MAGIC! BLOODY MAGIC! The magic used here is spectacular at times, mundane at others, but when you consider the two very 'English' gentlemen who conjure the magic, the contrast between the dull and spectacular really streaches the imagination.
  • The story is slow at times, but builds up at all the correct spots. There are several parallel plotlines at times, but these come together nicely.
  • When there IS action, the proceedings are portrayed vividly enough to be complex, yet simple enough to imagine easily.
What I didn't like

  • The weight of the book. It's HEAVY. It meant that I couldn't finish it as fast as I would have liked to.
  • The SIZE of the book is daunting. 800 pages and dozens of LONG footnotes that are stories within the story.
  • The footnotes that Clarke puts in time to time are sometimes interesting, but tend to be really distracting sometimes, especially when the footnotes are LONGER than the actual text on a page.
  • Mr Norrell is both a fascinating character, AND a frustrating character. Half the time I wanted to strangle him.

Summary:
I'd say this is one book I'll be reading again, if there was a smaller edition. It's too big to bring around conveniently. :-)

But weight aside, it IS a good book. The writing is fresh and simple (which is no mean feat, considering the book is set in 1806, and most of the characters are stuffy English gentlemen.) Clarke can be quite funny at times too, in a subtle British kind of way.

I liked the plot, and the idea of magic as a 'profession', and as something anyone can do as opposed to the usual fantasy-stereotype of 'you must be gifted and train with the greatest mages'. The historical references are also fun, and Strange's interactions with Wellington are among my favorites in the book.

It's not a typical fantasy book, to be sure, but it is precisely because of that that it is good to read. You never know what to expect. Even the footnotes themselves tend to be short stories in their own right, though some are so long it distracted me from the main story.

Would I recommend it? Definitely. It's pretty original, fun to read, and is immensely entertaining.

Just don't bring it around in your backpack or you'll break your back.

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