Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell, #1) - Susanna Clarke

This was a very uniquely told fantasy story.  It’s set in England (mostly) in the early 1800’s, and the author tells it in an authentic-sounding manner.  It mixes in a bit of the real world with the fantasy world, and uses some archaic words like “shew” (show) and “chuse” (choose) to add flavor.  There are also a lot of footnotes that add depth.  The tone of the story, combined with the footnotes, often made it feel a little more like I was reading a historical text rather than a fictional story.  Well, aside from all the magic and stuff, of course. :)  There’s also some humor.  It’s a somewhat dry humor that comes in large part from the despicable characters populating the story.

The basic story is that true magic hasn’t been seen in England for a very long time.  When the book begins, we’re introduced to a bunch of argumentative men who call themselves “magicians” but in fact have never cast any sort of spell.  They just study the history of magic, but they don’t practice it themselves or know of anybody who does.  Then we meet Mr Norrell who, much to everybody’s surprise, is a “practical” magician – he can actually do magic.  Mr Norrell has decided to make it his goal to bring magic back to England. But Mr Norrell does not have the type of personality you might expect, nor does he go about things in a way that might seem most effective to a rational reader.

It was an interesting story, and the writing was impressively done, but I was never very absorbed by it.  It’s far more character-based than plot-based, which isn’t a problem for me, but there weren’t too many truly likeable characters in this book and some of them were downright awful.  The book is broken up into three parts.  The first part features mostly despicable characters, the second part gives more page time to some of the more likeable characters, and the third part picks up the pace of the plot more significantly.  I thought the book steadily got better and better, but I still found it easy to put down.  For all the depth and authenticity the author put into the setting and the characters, I wasn’t too thrilled with the magic itself.  There seemed to be no real or consistent rules and, at times, it seemed terribly overpowered.

This book is 850 pages, not counting the footnotes that were all counted as page 850 in my Kindle edition.  The footnotes made up the last 7%, which would be about 64 pages.  So yes, this book was slightly tome-ish!  If anybody reads this on a Kindle, be careful because some of the footnotes get cut off in the pop-ups.  Many of the footnotes are quite long, some being practically short stories rather than ‘notes’.  When reading on the Kindle, you can follow the link to go directly to the footnotes to make sure you’re seeing it all.  In my case, I chose to read the book on my tablet instead, even though I don’t normally use it for reading.  It was just a little easier, plus the footnote indicators stood out better on a color screen with their blue numbers and I didn’t want to miss any.  I’ll be very happy to get back to my Kindle, but my tablet did give a slightly more realistic “weight” to my tome. :)

I have a couple of more specific comments that I’ll need to put within spoiler tags:

I thought the most interesting parts involved secondary characters.  I was very interested in Childermass.  I wish he’d played a more prominent role in the book, but the air of mystery surrounding him was part of his appeal.  I also enjoyed the parts with Stephen Black quite a bit.  Segundus was also interesting, what little we saw of him.

Jonathan Strange was somewhat likeable, certainly far more so than Mr Norrell.  He was rash and a bit self-absorbed, but I liked his openness and his desire to spread knowledge.  He seemed to have good intentions, even though his carelessness was sometimes a problem.  Mr Norrell, on the other hand… ugh!  Setting aside the fact that most of the problems in the book were the result of his selfish choices, he just had a horrid personality.  I hate information hoarders, and he took it to extremes.  He tried to suppress other magicians not out of genuine concern that they might cause harm, but because he was afraid somebody might equal or surpass his skills and siphon off some of his credit.  He wanted all the glory for himself, and he cared more about his own pride than the greater good.  He irrationally worked against his own stated objective of bringing Magic to England by actually suppressing it.   Ok, yes, he struck a nerve with me. :)  I guess that says something for how well-written he was if he managed to evoke so much dislike from me.

It was a little surprising to me, at least at first, that Norrell became so fond of Strange’s companionship, but I guess it makes sense that he would enjoy his first opportunity to converse with somebody who shared his interest in and aptitude for magic.  Given Norrell’s history of dishonesty and selfish behavior, I imagine he will hinder Strange rather than help him solve their little curse of darkness, out of a desire to keep Strange all to himself.

(show spoiler)

Whew… I guess my review was a bit of a tome itself!