Saturday, June 19, 2010

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

The short review of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - It's absolutely fabulous.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel

However, a 1008 page book deserves a little more than that, so I will start my review. I first came across Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell through limyaael, whose advice, as I have already noted, I find highly suited to my tastes. I was even more overjoyed to find this book in a local book shop, but it was a big book and an expensive one, and I dithered a lot before deciding on whether I wanted this book. Finally, after finding nothing else I wanted to buy in that entire bookstore, (except for Blyton's Naughtiest Girl in School, which I bought on the same trip, and my review of which can be read here) I finally decided to forget about waiting to read some more reviews and I just bought it.

My verdict? Jonathan Strange, as a character, is a more than sufficient reason to read this book. Mr. Norrell, the other principle character in this story, is another. Mix in some magic, mayhem, history, and a certain Raven King, along with a few creepy gentlemen with thistle-down hair, a certain nameless slave, Childermass and Arabella and you've got enough to make you want to re-read the book plenty of times. Clarke is a brilliant writer, and this clearly shines through her characters. She writes is many different perspectives - and whether she's writing through the eyes of cautious, fussy Mr. Norrell, or the crazy and daring Mr. Strange, or the confused but genuinely concerned Stephen Black, or even through the perspective of Childermass, Mr. Norrell's servant-cum-assistant, Clarke never fails to dazzle.

Set in 1806, this book covers the span of many years, and many important events - a war between france and england, the revival of english magic, and the biggest magical showdown for many years. Writing with skill and finesse, Clarke manages to build a startlingly beautiful world - mixing just enough of the real and the fantastical to create a setting that is amazingly fun to read. The setting manages to create a base for the story without actually proving to be too obtrusive to it, which I appreciate, because ultimately I believe this is a story about people rather than about the setting and I really felt that Clarke understands this delicate balance. Her setting is made even deeper and more real by the clever use of footnotes. These footnotes are a lot of fun to read, because they tell you stories and tales and add some spice to the world. (For another use of amazing footnotes, especially for humor unlike in this book, check out Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy - my review of which can be found here.)

Clarke is a great writer. She knows how to make a reader feel interested in the fate of even a character who might have been boring in any other hands. (Mr. Norrell, who has been described as the following by the author herself - "He hardly ever spoke of magic, and when he did it was like a history lesson and no one could bear to hear him." ) To convert this and the half-crazy, passionate, daring, charming guy Jonathan Strange is into a novel of this perfection is absolutely amazing. Her book is divided essentially into three parts - the first, of Mr. Norrell, the second devoted almost entirely to Mr. Strange, and the third being a combination of the two of them and a culmination of a large range of other plotlines into a dazzling finish. However, Mr. Strange is not entirely absent in Mr. Norrell's part of the story, and neither is it the other way around. Through footnotes, and introductory chapters, and small references, Clarke introduces us to Mr. Strange before he appears in the story proper, which is great because otherwise I might have lost interest in him long before the third part.

The plot is really well-crafted. It has a prophecy at the heart of it, and even though I do not generally like prophecies (too often in the hands of an inexperienced author you can tell what is going to happen long before the end, which is the worst way to have prophecies) but Clarke subverts this so cleverly and pulls such plot twists that it is a delight to read about this particular prophecy. In fact, in many ways this actually adds to the book, because by the time I reached the third part, I was actually getting goosebumps just reading the titles of the various chapters. (You can only understand this if you read the book till the second part, and then decide to ration the rest of the book by reading a hundred pages a day.)

Overall, this book is must-read for any serious fantasy enthusiast, and perhaps a must read for a lot of people. It's interesting, it's serious, it's funny, it's dark, and it's absolutely beautiful. It's a study into human nature. It's a well-researched book. It's a book to admire. It's a book to treasure. It's a book to fill your bookshelves and a book to read quickly, and slowly, to talk about and to spend some time with, a book to spend stormy afternoons with. It's a book to ration the pages off because despite its length you will feel it got over too soon.

In short, it's a book to love and a book to add to your bookshelves, like I added it to mine.

Final thoughts:
Great writing, brilliant characterization, excellent plotting and great settings. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell will captivate you, it will make you think and it will make hours disappear before you know it. It's the kind of book you read till midnight - telling yourself you'll put it down after the end of the chapter but realizing only twenty pages into the next chapter that you forgot all about that. Need I say more?

Of course, if you don't believe me, check out reviews of this book by other great people, chief among which is Neil Gaiman, whom I also admire very much. It might also be great to check out what Mr. Strange and Mr. Norrell have to say about the story. Of course, it might also be great to get some information on the film being made on this particular book.

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