20 words or less: Susanna Clarke weaves an intricate, character-based tale of English magic that is well worth the page count
My Rating: 4/5
Pros: Intricately crafted characters, extraordinary blending of historical England with magical elements, language that is intricate and elegant without being excessive or unintelligible
Cons: Slow pace won’t be for everyone, more character than plot driven, very little “action”
This past weekend I finally finished up Susanna Clarke's behemoth historical-fantasy tome Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel . The story is one of magic; men of magic, acts of magic, and books of magic. In one of the earliest passages of JS&MN, Mr. Norrell explains the difference between these books, dividing them into two categories “Books about Magic” and “Books of Magic.” Books about Magic are mundane, historical texts, with very little appeal to those interested in magic. Books of Magic, on the other hand, not only discuss but contain magic within their every page and word. Make no mistake; JS&MN is a book of magic.
At first glance, this book seems like it would be a chore. Over 750 pages, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a character study of two bibliophilic magicians set against early 19th century England. Think Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and your junior year of high school. Instead of trying to ignore the trappings of the time period, Clarke embraces them, making the two titular magicians stand out against the mundane rather than being overshadowed by it. Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell both fall outside typical societal expectations and these differences ultimately made me connect with the characters more and care about their lives. Rather than struggling through each chapter, I was enthralled and often found myself reading much more than I expected.
The main focus of the book is on the two magicians and their conflicting views on the future of English magic. Should magical knowledge be hoarded for the righteous few or disseminated to the curious masses? What acts of magic are appropriate for a proper English magician? These and other questions of magical philosophy influence the paths Strange and Norrell take through the book, weaving around each other and several minor characters, each of which ultimately has a significant role to play when all is said and done. While the book was very dense, I would be at a loss to try and cut a single character or plot thread.
To be fair, this book is not for everyone. It is a very intricate, very subtle story. These are not Michael Bay’s magicians. As the title advertises, this is first and foremost the story of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; two very multidimensional characters. My proposed litmus test would be to read the first 3 chapters or so until you get to the first act of magic. If that doesn’t move you to read more, chances are the rest of the book may not impress you. For me, once the curtain was drawn back and the magic behind the mundane revealed, I was entranced.