Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke

When I first heard of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, it was billed as a "Harry Potter for adults." Of course, I've read (and own) the whole Harry Potter series, but I was tempted by the idea of a book about English magic that wasn't written primarily for kids. Clarke's novel is brilliant and her humor is quite dry. In case you haven't seen it, the book is a monster: over 800 pages of very small print (even smaller in the footnotes, of which there are many). And you thought the last Harry Potter book was big.

The novel takes place in England and covers roughly a decade, from 1807 to 1817. At the start of the novel, magic is dead in England: there is a rich history of it, but all the "magicians" are theoretical magicians, studying it and debating it but not actually practicing it. Eventually a Mr Norrell turns up, who claims that he is a practical magician, and proves it, sparking a new era in English magic. Pretty soon his magic is used to great effect against the French (the Napoleonic Wars are taking place at this time).

Clarke fills the book with little scholarly details; footnotes reference various books about magic and biographies of characters in the book, or relate legends about magical encounters. But though this may sound boring, the story is engaging and she's actually quite funny, particularly about English ladies and gentlemen. (The York society "expressed their doubts that any body with such small handwriting could ever make a tolerable magician.")

Jonathan Strange, who becomes Norrell's pupil, is a wonderful contrast to the older magician. Norrell is a man of the book who is trying to rewrite the history of English magic without the Raven King (a near-mythical figure from whom English magic seems to stem). Strange, on the other hand, is fascinated with the Raven King and wants nothing less than to summon him up for some magic lessons. Besides the two magicians there is a large supporting cast (including some real people like the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron).

One thing I liked about the book was that Clarke really doesn't get into how the magic is done (if Strange decides to move a forest, she just says it gets moved, and there's not a clue what he said or did), but pays more attention to the effects of it. It's a 19th-century picture of celebrity: the magicians are the darlings of high society and get government contracts, and all the young people want to learn magic. Unsavory characters try to manipulate the magicians into serving their own ends.

It's hard to say much more without relating much more of the plot, which I certainly can't do as well as Clarke. So I'll just recommend this novel as one of the best I've read this year and you'll have to see for yourself. Kudos to Clarke for creating a rich alternate history of England in her first novel. I'm curious about what she'll tackle next.

Fed to jonathan's brain | November 01, 2005 | Comments (0)


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