Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Review: 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clark

Date finished: 12 September

Rating: 5 stars

Format: Paperback and eBook

Source: Bought - Waterstones.com (both formats)

Genre: Fantasy; Historical fiction

Published: by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc in Sept 2005

The 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.

The Review

This book has been on my shelves since I lived with my parents; it came with me when I went to university, moved back home again, moved into a flat with the boyfriend and then moved to our house. Each time I boxed/bagged/packaged it up, I eyed it guiltily. When I pulled it off the shelf in mid-August, I promised myself that it wasn't going back up until I'd read it (I only ever have one book off the shelves at any one time as I'm compelled to re-arrange those remaining so that there isn't an obvious space...don't judge me!).

Fortunately for my handbags, I spied an eBook copy for £1.99 about the same time I was rousing myself to start this. I read the paperback when I was at home and feeling strong and the eBook while I was out and about. Because I'm just that cool.

ANYway, what I'm trying to say (in a waffly manner) is that whatever excuse you have for not reading this is immaterial: you must read it if you are in any way interested in historical fiction and fantasy. This book is one of the best I have read in a long time and I heartily recommend it!

Mr Norrell is a practical magician in a world of theoretical magicians whose hope is to restore magic to England. Provided of course that is the right sort of magic that is restored. An unlikely candidate for task, Gilbert Norrell is charmless, dour and selfish man takes himself and his calling extraordinarily seriously. Before long, his relentless pursuit of purity in magic makes him the only magician in England. Which is, of course, why it is with some reluctance that he welcomes to the profession the dynamic Jonathan Strange and why their "pairing" pans out the way it does.

Both characters are perfectly drawn and, as you would expect in a novel of this length, well embellished. By the end of the book, I felt as though I knew them down to their mannerisms and preferences. It isn't only Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange that receive this level of attention either. Every single character is as complex and brilliant as real people and I was utterly lost to Clarke's world for many a happy hour. A personal favourite of mine is the mysterious and creepy Man with the Thistledown Hair - he was as fascinating as he was cruel and I loved his unpredictability.

As far as my very basic history of the period covered goes (i.e. that of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington), the story follows events with reasonable accuracy. Excepting, of course, the influence of magic. The blend of reality and magic is so natural that, if you didn't know better, you could convince yourself that you were reading history (which would be nice...).

Most importantly (for a novel of this length), Clarke's writing is impeccable. Her descriptions are almost poetic, her dialogue wry and entertaining and her characters flawless - rather than describe it, I thought I'd give you a sample...
[One of the many descriptions in this book and just a tiny example that I happened upon while writing this] "A lady was standing close by. She wore a gown the colour of storms, shadows and rain and a necklace of broken promises and regrets"

[In reference to the Raven King] "No one knows why in 1138 he caused the moon to disappear from the sky and made it travel through all the lakes and rivers of England. We do not know why in 1202 he quarrelled with Winter and banished it from his kingdom. Nor do we know why for thirty consecutive nights in May and June of 1345 every man, woman and child in the kingdom dreamt that they had been gathered together upon a dark red plain beneath a pale golden sky to build a tall black tower"
Without a doubt, a new favourite of mine!

Overall: If you like historical fiction with a dash of magic, read this. If you like fantasy fiction, read this. If you've never read either but are curious, (read something shorter to warm up and then) read this. If you can't bear the thought of reading 1,000 pages straight through, the story is handily divided into three volumes that you could read individually and almost as a trilogy, if you were so inclined!