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(Previously On) Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna ClarkePreviously On is a feature I run when I haven’t finished a book lately, but I feel you deserve a review anyway. These are old favorites of mine, which I can write about without rereading again.

I pre-ordered this book, sight unseen, in hardcover, when I was in college, on the strength of Neil Gaiman’s glowing recommendation. It was worth it. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my absolute favorite books.

This is absolutely not a book for everyone. It’s long. There are rambling, divergent footnotes. It combines Regency romance sensibilities with war narratives and an approach to magic that’s based more on medieval English folklore than on The Lord of the Rings. There’s a tonal shift three-quarters of the way through that reminds me of nothing so much as Jane Austen writing the adventures of Richard Sharpe. And if you’re like me, that makes this book perfect.

Mr Norrell is a practicing English magician. He actually does magic, which is considered beyond strange by all of his colleagues, who focus on research and analysis. And he is about to make a name for himself – is doing quite a good job, actually, between a spectacular display of living statues and raising a nobleman’s young wife from the dead – when Jonathan Strange appears. Jonathan Strange is also a practicing magician, and what’s more, he is young and handsome and a part of Society, which is not really something Mr Norrell can manage. Of course they will study together, and of course they will be rivals.

I do tend to think of this as really Jonathan’s book. I adore his attempts to make himself useful to the war effort, his rejection by the Navy and eventual adoption by General Wellington. And, of course, his relationship with the Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair. (One of my favorite scenes is when Jonathan goes to see about the king’s madness.)

The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair is an excellent example of what I mean by medieval English folkloric magic – he is nothing like an Elf or a modern fairy, but one of those threatening and powerful creatures from The Ballad of Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer whom you only dare refer to as The Good Folk.

I admit to a weakness for the Napoleonic Wars, and rereading Jane Austen or the Sharpe or Aubrey/Maturin series will always lead me in the direction of Jonathan Strange again as well. It is, like those books, an exquisite glimpse at another time. Except, of course, with magic. But I reread this most often at Christmastime, for I always remember the scene with Childermass and the birds on the snow. One year I opted for the audiobook instead, since I didn’t want to carry the book itself around; it is excellent, for those of you who might be as leery as I often am of audiobook narrators.

This is one of those books I would like to recommend to everyone, even though I know there are so many reasons why many people would not like it. I just love it so much, I would like to be able to share that love with everyone. Do you have any books you feel that way about?

30 Days of Books! Day one…

I’ve seen other people doing 30 days of television, or 30 days of Doctor Who, and I finally discovered the 30 days of books! I have to say, though, this meme is heavily weighted toward “favorite” things, and I’m bad at having favorite books. I read too much. So instead I’ve tried to avoid duplicating books and made some small attempt at breadth, although most of them turned out to be fantasy novels anyway. (I swear I do read other things. I just really, really like good fantasy.)

Day 01 – A book series you wish had gone on longer OR a book series you wish would just freaking end already (or both!)

It’s not a series, but when reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clarke, I could always go on reading it forever. It doesn’t help that by the end, everyone has undergone such massive changes in personality and/or circumstance that what happens next is by no means clear.

Jonathan Strange is one of those books you can’t recommend wholeheartedly to just anyone; it’s a kind of specialized taste. It’s a bit like Jane Austen with magic. The magic, in fact, has a very Austen-like sensibility to it. It’s fantasy in the Hope Mirlees tradition, which is quite an achievement, since as far as I can tell that tradition consists of Hope Mirlees and Susannah Clarke. Picture Mr Bingley, exactly as he is but with the ability to do magic, and you might get close.

It’s also a book set during a war, though, and and sometimes in a war. The war also appears in an entirely period sensibility — remember, of course, that General Wellington held a dinner party the night before Waterloo. And then the army went out to get slaughtered. Scenes of violence in this book are few and far between, but it’s their very rarity that makes them so powerful.

It’s also full of detail, so richly and appropriately in period and with such a wonderfully realized magical world that it’s easy to forget, sometimes, that this is not really part of the history of the Napoleonic Wars. (After all, surely the reason Wellington’s army was able to move so much faster than Bonaparte’s was that they had a magician conjuring up Roman roads for them everywhere?)

Jonathan Strange is a book you can drown in, and I always do. I remember the winter scenes most vividly, so I tend to read it in the winter, and every year I wish there were more. (There is a short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and the titular story is indeed in the same universe as Jonathan Strange, if you find you’ve developed the same craving I have.)

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