Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Fantasy of Manners? Yes, please!

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Susanna Clarke


Reviewed by: Terry 

4- 4.5 out of 5 stars



Fantastic story. One of the few that actually lives up to the hype. Be warned though: this is a loooong book and it is true that, from one point of view at least, it can be said that not too much happens in it. The title tells us what the two main sections of the book will cover: the lives of the last two true magicians in an alternate 19th century Britain. They are the bookish, annoying and altogether full of himself Mr. Norrell and the flighty, brilliant and altogether full of himself Jonathan Strange.

What follows is a fantasy book as written by Jane Austen by way of Neil Gaiman. Of course it's much more, and better, than that trite description implies. Mr. Norrell is a man who wants to 'own' magic. At the beginning of the story he is the sole active practitioner of the Art which has up to that point devolved into a purely academic pursuit. He has seemingly made it his life's work to hoard every available resource on the Art in England and force every other so-called Magician to abjure their claim to its practice if they cannot meet his challenge.

Jonathan Strange, on the other hand, is a young and carefree man of means flitting from interest to interest, unable to find any focus in his life. Until, that is, he discovers his unique talent for magic and ends up coming into direct contention with dour Mr. Norrell. The relationship that develops between these two characters is very interesting as Norrell, for his part, sees Strange as both his greatest adversary and, conversely, an apt pupil who is the only equal with whom the lonely old man can converse with any real pleasure or surprise. Strange finds Norrell infuriating and irritating in about equal measure, yet still seems drawn to the older man's knowledge.

In the background of the story of these two magicians and the rebirth of English Magic in general (and fueling its movement forward), are two figures of legend: the puckish Gentleman with thistledown hair (a fae inadvertently brought to the human world via some ill-advised early magic by Norrell) and the enigmatic Raven King (a human named John Uskglass, the once and future magical high-king of Britain, a human adopted into Faerie in the Middle Ages). These two figures loom large in the story, the former explicitly as he attempts to meddle with the human world for his own mischievous ends (as the fae are wont), the other much more subtly as his influence is more felt than seen behind the entirety of English magic.

The only great fault with the story is perhaps the fact that the two title characters, for all of their deeds and interactions, still sometimes seem to remain somewhat enigmatic cyphers in the background of their own stories. In many ways the secondary characters of John Childermass, Vinculus, and Stephen Black are more interesting than the protagonists. Despite this though, the story is well-told. It has a charming, archaic style that is thoroughly enjoyable which makes heavy use of academic footnotes, some of which are even more amusing and enlightening than the story on which they comment.

Overall a great story and very immersive book that I highly recommend.  


Also posted at Goodreads


  1. I thought it started off extremely well, and had me genuinely excited, but it just grew tiresome and tedious as it went on. The style of writing was very quaint, but I felt it either needed a lot more story development, or a serious round of editing.

  2. I totally see where you're coming from and am not surprised when some have this reaction. Somehow I didn't get that feeling, but I certainly think this is a book that you either like or you don't.