Saturday, March 5, 2016

Book Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke


A while back, I determined that I would like to read some very large books that would keep me engaged for a long period of time. One of my first selections was Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which turned out to be three full months of enjoyment. This book to me to a whole new realm and every time I picked it up I found myself quickly getting lost within its pages. Even though I read it off and on, I never got very lost or had to turn back even when the chapters started off in an entirely new setting.

Susanna Clarke is a spectacular author with a real keen knowledge of prose and her writing subject. The magic used by the two magicians is very real and comes with a whole history of magical lore that often appears at the bottom of the page in footnotes, never have I been so fond of reading footnotes than in this book.

The story tells of the two eponymous magician starting with Mr Gilbert Norrell. Mr Norrell is a practical magician and prefers to learn all of his magic from books without testing any of it out. Magic has gone out of England and Mr Norrell is the only remaining magician so he seeks to bring it back, but there was a reason it had gone away. Magic has consequences and some of Norrell's first tricks cause terrible things to happen. Clarke does a great job of showing a sympathetic view of Mr Norrell while also making him out to be quite dreadful. 

Jonathan Strange appears several chapters later and has a much more brash approach to the use of magic. Strange was a great character to read and his adventures through the second part of the book were some of my favorite chapters. 

The two approaches clash but also the two magicians are delighted to learn from one another. Unfortunately their magic has odd effects on other citizens of London. Stephen Black is affected by Norrell's choice to change something and he becomes a great conflicted character. As a former slave and now servant to a minister, Black is given an opportunity to break out of his role and rise to a higher one with the help of a mysterious genlteman with thistle-down hair, a great villain of sorts for the book. Childermass, Vinculus, Arabella Strange, and John Segundus are all great characters too with real motivations and unique personalities that are often quite comical and add greatly to the story.

The third part of the book delves into the mystery of the past and a reader will see just how deep of a backstory Clarke created before giving the current plot. Despite a ton of information, the book remains well paced and I eagerly flipped to the next page to see how the story continued. 

If you like a complex, well written, and entertaining book full of fantasy and social interaction in England during the Napoleonic Wars, this might be the perfect book for you. There is a reason a book of over eight hundred pages gets published and achieves the popularity it has, still I can't help but think I've joined a smaller number of readers who kept at all the way to the end, which has such a great payoff and I love when books tie it all together.

I don't know what Susanna Clarke has planned next but I assume it will take her a while considering the length of this book. It was first published in 2004 but came to paperback only last year when I stumbled upon it. It is a wonderful ode to reading and imagination, studying and learning, and believing in things that might not be visible at first. Social issues are touched upon in ways that are not alienating or lecturing and the books plot keeps a steady pace once getting started. I look forward to checking out the series that aired on BBC. This book will go down as one of my most favorite that I have ever read!

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