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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

by Susanna Clarke
Trade Paperback, 846 pages
List Price: $18.00 Sale Price: $12.60

Equal parts Dickens, Austen, and Charles Williams (with a dash of Mervyn Peake), Susanna Clarke's first novel combines the best elements of historical fiction and fantasy to create a believable world in this modern novel of manners. Clarke implements a hybrid Victorian/contemporary style that is accessible and never tacky or cheesy. And while this is a novel of manners, it's also a novel about magic and the Napoleanic Wars and a mysterious king of England, the Raven King John Uskglass.

Mr. Norrell is a gentleman magician. When he displays his abilities he becomes an overnight sensation in England, attracting the attention of nobleman Jonathan Strange who becomes Norrell's apprentice, and quickly outstrips his master. The two are thrust into international intrigue (the Napoleanic Wars, in which Wellington enlists Strange's help) and domestic intrigue (the return of the mysterious Raven King to England). The period elements are convincing; the plot is complex and engaging.

For those whose memory of the history of magic is shaky there are voluminous footnotes, from clarifying the arcane names of John Uskglass to relating little-known tales of magic eggs in Nottingham. There's plenty of wit—some dry, some hilarious—and even if the plot wasn't utterly intriguing, the book would be worth reading just for the prose. But don't get the idea this is merely an entertainment (entertaining as it undoubtedly is).

A major theme of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the relationship of madness and reason. Magic represents madness, while the prosaic aspects of everyday life represent reason, though the dichotomy is more subtle. Madness also represents the unpredictable natural world, the elements of life that cannot be controlled without disastrous consequences. Thus madness and reason aren't at odds, but complementary halves of existence which must both be embraced to live fully.

Lesser writers might explore such themes clumsily, but Clarke includes depth of thought alongside an engaging narrative resulting in one of the finest novels in recent years.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Exodus Rating:
FLAWS: Fighting/violence, Language, Sexual content
Summary: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are antagonists when it comes to their different views on magic, but it is through their friendship that a great evil is destroyed.

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  A Magical England?
Elly_L of Oregon, 4/17/2010
No, not Harry Potter - Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clark! If you’re looking for something to read, you might add this to your list. It’s not a gripping page-turner (a good thing for my family since it’s over 700 pages long), and except for the last hundred or so pages, it doesn’t leave you on the edge of your seat, but it has much to recommend it regardless. The writing style is very dry and witty in that oh-so-reserved English way, and I found myself chuckling numerous times throughout. An example:

Childermass inquired drily if Mr. Norrell wished him to seek out architecture expressive of the proposition that magic was as respectable as the Church?

Mr. Norrell (who knew there were such things as jokes in the world or people would not write about them in books, but who had never actually been introduced to a joke or shaken its hand) considered a while before replying at last that no, he did not think they could quite claim that. (p. 40-41)

What is it about? It’s about an imaginary 18th century England where history is much the same as our version, but modified by the existence of a long standing effective English magic, recently fallen into disuse and disrepair. The one remaining gentleman-practitioner of magic, Mr. Norrell, and his student Mr. Strange attempt to bring magic back to England – the drama is brought by the abduction of ladies by crazy fairies, the Napoleanic wars, and the mysterious influence of the gone, but not dead, Raven King.