Friday, April 25, 2008 05:01 PM
Book Report - Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
 by Fëanor

Poppy and I have been reading this book (by Susanna Clarke, published 2004) together on and off for what seems like years now. A little while back, poppy gave me permission to finish reading it on my own if I so wished (I swear she did! Although she now doesn't remember this conversation), and after at first refusing, I finally could stand it no longer and gobbled up the remainder of the book. I think I'd like to read it again now, over a shorter period of time, and reevaluate my opinion of it. As it stands, I very much enjoyed it, but I found the ending, believe it or not, not quite romantic enough for my tastes.

JS&MN is a fascinating combination of a comedy of English manners - full of drawing room gossip and love affairs - with a fantasy epic - full of magical adventure. It imagines an alternate history version of Britain where magic and fairies were once commonplace, but have since all but vanished from the world. As it opens, English magic begins to have a strange, slow rebirth, thanks to the appearance of the first two practical magicians in many a year, whose names are the title of the book. They couldn't be more different - and yet, in their own way, they're also quite similar. The first, Mr. Norrell, is a shut-in and a recluse who has no social skills whatsoever and would like nothing better than to simply study magic all day long. He has collected pretty much every magical text in Britain and hidden them away in his library. When anyone else takes it upon themselves to consider becoming a magician, he does everything in his power to stop them. He's a bit jealous of his knowledge and abilities, you see.

The other, Jonathan Strange, is a lovable, independently wealthy layabout with no skills except a clever tongue and no ambitions except to win the hand of the beautiful Arabella. To make himself more attractive to her, he decides he must acquire an occupation of some kind, and rather randomly (or fatefully?) decides upon magic. He quickly finds he has an aptitude for it.

Of course, the fact that he does magic at all must put him at odds with Mr. Norrell - or so it would seem. In fact, the meetings between Norrell and Strange never end up turning out quite the way anyone thinks they're going to.

The actions of the magicians awaken the attentions of one of the only true villains in the book (although in many ways even he means only the best), an incredibly powerful Fairy King whose mind works in a frightening, funny, and entirely inhuman way.

There are many other important and fascinating characters caught up in the action of the book, the most central probably being Stephen Black, a black servant to a powerful Lord. Besides being an interesting treatment of humanity, love, war, and politics, the book also takes on issues of race in a very meaningful and powerful way. It's an incredibly smart, entertaining, and effective novel, with many delightfully funny and clever passages. Clarke's power over language is considerable, and there are many sections of the book that are quite simply breathtakingly beautiful. She also has a real knack for swinging from a light, fun tone to one of weight and depth quickly and gracefully. The world she builds - so much like our own, and yet so different, with its Raven King and fairy roads - is full, real, and extremely comfortable. Parts of it seem quite nice enough to settle down and live in. Clarke also includes many engaging footnotes that give her world a sense of history and weight, and seem to extend it far beyond these pages. In fact, one could imagine many more stories taking place within this universe.

I love the way fairies and their world are treated, I love the way magic is described and dealt with, I love the characters, I love the humor, I love the poetry, I love the dialogue. In short, I love this book very dearly. As I said, my only real quibble is with the very end. The relationship between Jonathan and Arabella is a wonderfully realistic one, and the two of them are such fantastic characters and work so well together that you really yearn for them to be happy. But as in many British relationships depicted in this time period, the love they feel for each other is expressed only in subtle ways, or in their actions when they're away from each other. I really wanted to see the passion come out when they were face to face with each other on those final pages, and it just didn't. To me, that fact made their love seem weak and the ending a bit disappointing and tepid. (I mean, she could have at least slapped him, if nothing else.) But perhaps I'll feel differently when I read it again. The point is, as a whole, it's a nearly perfect novel, intelligent, imaginative, exciting, and a wonderful read. I highly recommend it.
Tagged (?): Book Report (Not), Books (Not)

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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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