I admit it. Even I was initially intimidated by the length of this book. And I’m that person who read Harry Potter at age eight, who’s devoured books in a single day, who has a reading list that numbers in the triple-digits. But seeing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for the first time in a bookstore, I thought, “well, that’s crazy long! I don’t have time right now!” And it wasn’t until I stumbled across the BBC mini-series on Netflix that I even gave this story another thought. After watching the show, though, I knew I had to have this book in my life. And I’m so glad I did. I’ve read it twice now even, so it’s about time I sit here and yell about it!
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is set in the early 19th century, when England’s war with Napoleon is ramping up. Meanwhile, drama ensues in Yorkshire, when the reclusive Mr. Norrell reveals himself as a practical magician, something not heard of for three centuries. He sets off for London to help the war effort, while in the country Jonathan Strange hears from an odd vagabond that he too is destined to be a magician. He becomes Norrell’s student, but finds himself more interested in the history of the last great English magician, the Raven King, than in his teacher’s dry methods. With the war getting more intense and with Norrell’s many reservations and secrets, their relationship quickly becomes strained. Concurrently, a fairy called the Gentleman pursues his own nefarious plots, tampering with the lives of several people, including a noblewoman, a butler, and eventually Strange’s own wife. Around the time the Gentleman’s plots are coming to a head, Strange and Norrell abandon each other, seemingly forever. Norrell struggles to maintain a good reputation with the rich and powerful; Strange risks everything to save his wife even if he must use darker, wilder magic and destroy his own sanity. At last, the two magicians reunite and face their greatest challenge—the complete return of the Raven King’s magic to England, while the Gentleman’s victims fight to escape him.
So while writing the above paragraph, I realized this book is crazy difficult to summarize. There is so much detail and so many storylines that a succinct but complete enough synopsis is nearly impossible to accomplish.
That is not to say this plot is confusing to me; quite the contrary. It is so well constructed and written, full of complexity and cleverness. The world—like the Victorian England we know, but with a deliciously magical twist—is well built. The sense of this world having had magic embedded in its history is done so convincingly, and by not even halfway through the book, this universe feels like home.
One of the main conflicts—which essentially boils down to an argument between two sides of a scholarly debate—is compelling and fascinating. For me at least, Strange stands for the dissemination of knowledge, while Norrell believes more in censorship, that information should only be in the hands of experts, not in the hands of laypeople. The fact Clarke is able to make that an interesting conflict is admirable.
Meanwhile, the Gentleman’s schemes are more action-packed: kidnapping, and tormenting innocent people. He selfishly messes with their lives for his own ends, even if he thinks it benefits them. Seeing the fairy world through his storyline is a spooky, entertaining aspect of this book, and he is just such a fantastically impish, sinister antagonist.
In most books, you like lots of the characters, dislike some, are indifferent to others (as least that’s my experience). It’s rare to adore, as I do here, all the characters, even villains like the Gentleman. Everyone is so well-written, with distinctive voices, personalities, and motivations. It’s a massive cast, but I was never confused about who was who. I have several favorites: Childermass, the roguish, enigmatic servant to Norrell; Arabella, the kind-hearted but strong wife of Jonathan Strange; Segundus and Honeyfoot, a sweet pair of York magicians who have an awesome subplot of their own; and of course, Strange and Norrell, whose friendship and battle with each is the true center of this book.
All these, and the many many characters I haven’t even mentioned yet (Vinculus, Stephen, Emma Pole, Sir Walter, Drawlight, Lascelles, Flora, and so on), give this already richly detailed universe so much delightful, dynamic personality.
And goodness, the writing! Clarke is a brilliant talent. This book is an utter behemoth, in length and sheer epicness of the plot, but what’s most impressive is this book was a debut! I will never be this talented, but I’m glad someone in the world is, and that someone is Susanna Clarke. This novel is a whopping 800 pages hardcover (my little mass market paperback makes it 1000 pages), but the pacing is masterful. The scope and intricacy of the tale, spanning many years and several countries, has to be explored and given due diligence for it to work. And Clarke allows for the space—and pages—to do so.
Furthermore, the themes she explores are wonderful. Aside from her inspired decision to make scholarly debate a key aspect of the book’s conflict, her casually cutting remarks about Victorian class structure, racism, and sexism are delightful. Her portrayal of women and POCs is thoughtful, realistic, and powerful. They are given strong, well-composed arcs, and are just very likeable characters. Through Stephen Black we see a criticism of racism and slavery (the latter is a reality that, in the book’s setting, is only barely history). Through Lady Pole we get a really interesting criticism: due to fairy magic, she sinks into depression and terror, then is confined and forced to rest all the time by her husband and Norrell—which is of course the worst thing for her. Her story serves as a scorching denouncement of “rest cures” and the tendency of writing off genuine ailments as “hysteria.” You really root for her and Stephen both, another testament to Clarke’s skill.
Speaking of Clarke’s skill—the footnotes. She uses them extensively, sometimes in the traditional way of providing more details about materials referenced in the main text, but other times these notes expand upon information to give readers a bigger picture of this universe. A couple of very memorable times, Clarke utilizes footnotes to tell anecdotal stories that go on for pages; they’re something you’d more likely see in a short story collection than as mere footnotes. But they’re entertaining and interesting, and provide depth most books don’t bother with. They make this book feel more like an actual historical text from an actual magical universe. To my surprise, I ended up adoring the footnotes; they are so innovative and entertaining, and I highly recommend not skipping them.
In the end, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is simply marvelous. The pacing, characters and their development, plotting, writing style, narrative voice, historical elements, worldbuilding, and action scenes are fabulous. It’s a long tale, but so worth it. I could gush about this book for much longer, but I’m going to stop myself before this post gets really out of hand.
Overall rating: 9.5/10