Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

jonathan strangeJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

This sprawling, 1000+ page story of magic’s return to England is truly amazing. Set during the Napoleonic wars, it takes place in an England where Magic is—or at least was—very real, with an alternate history where John Uskglass the Raven King had ruled over the North for centuries, faerie roads used to be common, and many groups and clubs of learned men meet to discuss and write articles on the history of magic. At this time, however, it has been generations since the last faerie road has closed. And this is the mystery at the heart of the book: what has happened to British magic, and when it will return to England?

When the book begins, we are introduced to a group of theoretical magicians—men who study magic, not perform it—with a new member asking the impolitic question of why practical magic no longer exists. Through this discussion we eventually come to Mr. Norrell, who offers to prove his practical magic in a dramatic fashion if all theoretical magicians will renounce their claim to the title of magician. His success brings him to London, where he endeavors to restore magic to its rightful, respectable place, aid the war effort, and win high regard—but only for his own particular thoughts on magic. We are eventually introduced to Jonathan Strange, charismatic, impulsive, and a brilliant natural at magic, who stumbles into his career as a practical magician.

This is the bare-bones of a story that takes us throughout the Iberian peninsula in the war, through the way magic begins to effect numerous characters throughout the story, introduces us to an amoral faerie, the Man with the Thistledown Hair, and sees magic reintroduced to England. And most of all, dives in depth into the story of the Raven King and the history of the England just off to the side of our own world, where many similar things have happened, but in very different ways.

The world building in Jonathan Strange is truly staggering. Many characters in the tale have their own tales. The background story of Jonathan Strange, for instance, doled out in one or two longish chapters, could have been its own standalone short story. Almost every character we encounter is fully fleshed out, and their own story expertly woven into and important to the larger narrative. Even more amazing, though, is her story of magic. The alternate history, and the tale of the Raven King, dips in and out of the story at all turns, with the Raven King overshadowing everything that is done with magic, and even politics in the Britain of the book. In addition, footnotes are given for numerous references to magic and history, and citations of other books within this world, with each footnote being its own tale again. For instance, take a look at just this one footnote in the book, a fairly representative one:

One autumn morning the Cumbrian child went out into her grandmother’s garden. In a forgotten corner she discovered a house about the height and largeness of a bee-skep, built of spiders’ webs stiffened and whitened with hoar-frost. Inside the house was a tiny person who at times immeasurably old and at other times no older than the child herself. The little person told the Cumbrian child that she was a songbird-herd and that for ages past it had been her task to look after fieldfares, redwings and mistle-thrushes in that part of Cumbria. …

…and on for several more sentences to the end of the tale. To say nothing of the occasional three and four page footnote. David Foster Wallace has nothing on Susanna Clarke.

I also loved the way Clarke brought in other topics in a subtle way, an excellent example of “show don’t tell”. The book is not a polemic or a treatise on social justice issues by any means. But any careful reading will pick out the way the same magickal affliction affects an aristocratic woman and a servant in very different ways, with the former an invalid who everyone can tell is ailing the latter forced to carry on in the same manner. Or the way some of the problems may have been solved earlier if people were expected more to listen to and pay attention to sidelined women. These issues only arise here and there, but are certainly present to anyone who cares to pay attention.

I’ve read this book twice now. And each time it’s been just as surprisingly delightful, intriguing, and just so, so impressive. I guess there’s more detail in something like The Silmarillion, but Clarke still has my admiration because she made it interesting, too. I know the thickness might be off putting to some, but I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s a wonderful story, amazing world created, and for anyone willing to put in the thought and time discussions a-plenty to be had.

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