#50BookPledge – 1: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

January 19, 2012 — 5 Comments

One book down! Yay!

Look, I’m a bit of an idiot. I got a late start on this #50BookPledge business, but then on top of that I decided my first book would be an 850 page fantasy opus. I’m just lucky the prose wasn’t as heavy as War and Peace or else my pledge would have been over before it even started.

Anyway, on to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It’s a book by one Susanna Clarke, released some years ago to a fair bit of acclaim and a nice spot on a number of bestsellers lists. It’s an interesting book in that it’s not exactly easy to fit it into a box. On the one hand it’s a fantasy book. No doubt about it. It’s got magicians who can do real magic, fairies, naval armadas made out of rain, all that jazz. But it’s also something of an alternate history tale, except the “alternate” in this case is that it’s an 19th Century England in which magic once existed and is now being restored. And then on top of this, the book is written in a style highly reminiscent of the works of Jane Austen, mixed with a little Charles Dickens.

If all this sounds like it might be up your alley, then you should probably just stop reading now and go pick up a copy of the book.

In the meantime, I’ll try to break down a bit of the plot. Basically, for the last few hundred years magic has been lost in England. There are still magicians, but they are only “theoretical magicians”, sort of like magic historians/philosophers. At the start of the book, two such “magicians” encounter Mr. Norrell, a man who claims to actually be able to do magic. Real magic. And he demonstrates it. The book then follows Mr. Norrell as he goes to London intent on restoring England to its former magical glory, and to help fight Napoleon.

Soon, another real magician is discovered. Jonathan Strange, a younger man, becomes Mr. Norrell’s pupil. Rivalry happens, as it would, and lots of shit goes down that I won’t spoil. Oh, and there’s also the problem of a fairy who’s kidnapping people and meddling in the lives of both Norrell and Strange.

I think the most impressive thing about the book was how I was never quite able to predict what was going to happen. I kept imagining how things were going to play out, but Clarke never succumbs to that sort of predictability. The story flows very naturally, with characters behaving quite realistically. This isn’t a big, showy fantasy book like Harry Potter. The use of magic is a bit more ingrained. The characters treat it like a tool or a science. The way they go about their problems is with that classic British ease.

The book also has tons of characters and many situations that at first seem like plot diversions, but actually do end up building towards the larger story. It’s great writing, and the kind that I imagine even people who aren’t big on fantasy would enjoy. In fact, I know that’s the case since I’m not too big on fantasy myself. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a long book, but a great one, and well worth the time it takes to read.

The next book in my pledge will be Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

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5 responses to #50BookPledge – 1: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

  1. 

    One of my favorite things about the book is how magic is described and used. It’s academic, practically stuffy, and the way the magicians talk about it makes it seem almost banal. That this is accomplished while at the same time making the actual magic done seem mysterious, ominous, and dangerous is quite a feat.

    I’ll try to avoid spoilers here, but I think my favorite example of this involves Jonathan Strange’s struggles to find a spell that will fulfill the practical needs of someone to whom he has been conscripted, the spells he tries, and the solution he eventually comes up with. We see the amazing, frightening power that he wields, and also the limits of that power, and the eventual solution is simple – almost ordinary, comparatively – and perfect.

    • 

      Yeah, I wanted to go into the nature of the magic a bit more, but I was worried about spoiling. A lot of it is described so matter of fact, but when you think about it the grandeur is amazing. This is a book that I would LOVE to see turned into an HBO mini-series.

  2. 

    Glad you enjoyed it. I love the prose and the way Clarke takes her time to weave the story together. It’s easily one of my favorite contemporary works of fiction that I’ve read.

    • 

      Yeah, the prose isn’t difficult, but it’s also very cool and clever. It’s a relatively new book, but the writing style feels instantly classic. Great stuff.

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