Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

April 24th, 2005

Once again we, the readers, are thrust into the speech and forms of England’s post-Renaissance glory days. I suppose it’s in vogue at the moment as far as settings are concerned, or something, although this time it’s Regency period. Mrs. Clarke, in a very impressive first novel, makes a serious impression; with polished prose, believable characters, and an intricate plot. The England of the book is one with a deep and complicated history of magical involvement at both high and low levels of society. The entirety of Northern England, in fact, was ruled as a separate kingdom for 300 years by a strange and mysterious magician commonly called the Raven King, although he disappeared over 300 years prior to the events described. Since his leaving, magic (and the Fairies who seemed to accompany much of it) has all but faded away, with no magician known to have successfully performed a spell in a century or so when our story opens in early 1806.

Magicians are not all gone, or at least there are many of England’s idle gentlemen who call themselves such, but in truth what they are is historians of the magic that once thrived in their land and the magicians who practiced it. There is an exception, though…a man named Norrell, who has gathered in his remote country estate a library of books on magic unrivaled anywhere else in England. He and his mysterious servant, Childermass, have been collecting them from every bookseller, estate sale, and other venue for decades. Even duplicates on any book are snatched up, because Mr. Norrell doesn’t just want to have the books…he wants to be the only one with the books, because he doesn’t just want to be a magical historian, he wants to be the greatest practicing magician in England. He craves that fame and acclaim greater than anything else, and has bent his life and fortune towards that goal since childhood.

And it works. Through various acts of magic and social adventure, Norrell introduces himself (unimpressive as he is) and his magic (which is powerfully impressive if uninspired) to England, and makes himself useful to the Government in their war against Napoleon. So useful, in fact, that the Government is soon urging him to find more magicians to train and assist them where needed. This is Norrell’s worst nightmare, and he puts them off for as long as he can, but another country gentleman, named (somewhat dramatically) Jonathon Strange finds himself in need of a stable profession, and when some spells find their way into his hands, it occurs to him that perhaps magician would be a good one. To his surprise (and that of his friends and loved ones), it holds his attention for far longer than any of the other occupations he had pursued; indeed it becomes his passion, and one he discovers a great talent for.

England, though Norrell would have sought otherwise, has acquired for itself two practicing magicians, and soon enough Strange seeks out Norrell and enters into formal apprenticeship with him, and although their personalities and opinions on magic often differ, they make an excellent team…for a time. Elsewhere, unintended consequences of some of Norrell’s early actions in attracting attention and securing his position as England’s greatest magician have resulted in members of a prominent politician’s household suffering under a fairie enchantment. The executor of this enchantment, a character called only “The Man With the Thistle-Down Hair,” is probably the best representation of the Sidhe I’ve seen since Feist’s under-celebrated Faerie Tale. This guy is fascinating, funny, and creepy. A delicious villain the likes of whom I have not read in a while (Here’s hoping Mr. Depp gets the part in the film version…he’d be perfect), his mysterious motivations and actions soon grow in consequence and scope, even threatening the King in his intrigues.

This was a delightful book to read, quick and fun with both humor and pathos; and illustrated (at least in the hardcover edition which I acquired) not only by vivid imagery in the prose, but literally, in occasional lovely charcoal sketches by Portia Rosenberg. Additionally, Mrs. Clarke makes extensive use of footnotes, in a style which is somewhat reminiscent of Terry Pratchett. There is at least one occasion in which the text of the story itself is limited to four bare lines at the top of opposing leaves, while a footnote (from the previous page!) rambles on and on underneath it. The advantage is palpable, as it allows the reader to percieve some of the depth of the world without the awkward convention of the infodump, where characters relate to other characters things that they almost certainly should have known; and it is also done simply for flavor, as with those footnotes which are simply publishing information to a referenced (fictional) text, much as you would find in any book intended for a scholarly audience.

My only frustrations were in interesting avenues and characters left unexplored, like the tragically under-utilised Mr. Segundus, or the intriguing library of (the absurdly named) Mrs. Delgado’s Rabbi landlord. There’s certainly plenty of material there for sequels, and I’m sure I’m not alone in eagerly awaiting them. Unless you have a pathological distaste for footnotes, or you simply don’t care for the Imperial English setting, this is a book I would have no hesitation recommending to a fantasy reader. It’s completely understandable why it’s up for a Hugo, and I wish it all the luck in the world.

2 Responses to “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell”

  1. Good review, your humblestness… mine is here

  2. Skwid says:

    Thanks for posting, Chase.

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