Equal parts Dickens, Austen, and Charles Williams (with some Mervyn Peake thrown in for good measure), Susanna Clarke's incredible first novel combines the best elements of historical fiction and fantasy to create a believable world in this modern novel of manners. (Don't let the genre referencesthrow you off—this is literary fiction at its finest.) Clarke implements a hybrid Victorian/contemporary style that is accessible and never becomes 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 magic England, the Raven King John Uskglass.
Mr. Norrell is a gentleman practitioner of magic, a craft that has fallen into disrepute and disuse. When he begins displaying his abilities he becomes an overnight sensation in England, attracting allkinds of attention including that of nobleman Jonathan Strange who quickly becomes Norrell's apprentice, and quickly begins to outstrip 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). Clarke clearly knows her history and the period elements are convincing and well-constructed; the plot is complex and engaging.
For those whose memory of the history of magic is shaky, there are voluminous footnotes to aid recollection,from clarifyingthe arcane names of John Uskglass to relating little-known tales of magic eggs in Nottingham. The text is filled with wit—some dry, some hilarious—and even if the plot was not utterly intriguing (it is), the book would be worth reading just for the liveliness and brilliance of the prose. But don't get the idea this is merely an entertainment (entertaining as it undoubtedly is).
One of the major themes of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the differences and relationship between madness and reason. In many ways magic for Clarke represents madness,while the prosaic mundanities of everyday life represent reason, though in reality the dichotomy is more subtle. Madness also represents the natural world and its unpredictability, the elements of life that cannot be controlled, at least not without great danger and possibly disastrous consequences. Thus madness and reason are not seen at odds, but as complementary halves of existence both of which must be embraced to live fully.
While a lesser writer might be expected to explore such themes clumsily and to digress into philosophical diatribes, Clarke manages to include depth of thought alongside a fantastically engaging narrative resulting in one of the finest novels of recent years.
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