I finally finished Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel!
Though it was very long and not the kind of thing I usually read, it was atually a very good book. Of course, part of the hold up on my end was all the stress of the divorce, but I’m getting so that is my normal state of affairs, if you’ll pardon the pun. In any case, it was a different sort of book which came to my attention thanks to one of the many “Best of…” lists for fantasy literature. What caught my attention, in this case, was the very unusual setting for a fantasy novel: Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. The overall theme of the book centered on the rebirth of magic in England as brought about by the two title characters, Jonathan Strange and his mentor Mr. Gilbert Norrell.
I would be hard pressed to layout a single plot that describes the book, because there really wasn’t a single plot that dominated the action. Instead, it seemed to me that there were several stories going on at once that were interwoven. In fact, it was what I liked least about the work. It seemed to promote style over, well, over virtually anything else. Normally, that would spell disaster for me in a work, and may have been one of the things that made this particular book so hard to read at times, but, in the end, it worked. Among the more interesting sub-plots was one involving a Faerie King who steals away the wives of two characters in the book. As Faeries are wont to do in legend, he enchants them and makes their lives a kind of marzipan hell filled with music and dancing and celebrations of a somewhat inhuman nature.
Another story, if you will, is that of Jonathan Strange’s education and his competition with his mentor Mr. Norrell. At first, these two are the only “practical” magicians left in the world, and they are not even aware of each other. Soon enough, though, their lives become quite intertwined. The author, Susanna Clarke, uses the personalities of these two men to clearly illustrate two very different kinds of scholars and magicians. Each man embodies a different view of magic and how it should work and, of course, they are at odds. It is quite interesting to see the ways in which the two men rub each other the wrong way, but still need each other, as no one else in the world understands the things they each do. It is an interesting study of need, compulsion, desire, and, in a strange way, repulsion.
Though this was a very good book, I certainly would not want to make a steady diet of this sort of writing. There were far too many slow points and sections for my taste, but it was worth wading through them to gather up the gems of description and the pearls of characterization which Ms. Clarke scattered liberally throughout.
I reccomend the book to anyone who has read a lot of fantasy and is looking for a new challenge. But, it is certainly not light Summer reading for the beach!