Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Over the Christmas holiday I read Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Given that it's quite the popular book in fantasy circles these days and I know that at least one of my lurking readers was reading it, I thought a little book review might be in order.

For those who have no idea what I'm talking about this is a book about Napoleonic England, in a world where magic works, but has completely died out. When the book opens the only type of "magician" about is what's called a "theoretical magician" - one who studies the history of magic instead of actually doing magic. Of course soon enough a "practical magician" arises - the titular Mr. Norrell. Norrell soon re-establishes English magic and eventually acquires an apprentice - Jonathan Strange. I won't get into spoiling the plot, but English magic is faery based, and eventually a faery begins to wreak havoc in everyone's lives.

This is a huge book - the hardback edition is nearly 800 pages and it's really all about the setting. You learn quite a bit of the underpinning of English magic, and how it relates to the English culture. This was all interesting enough, but from an American perspective I felt like I had missed something important. There's quite a bit of contrast between Northern England (which was ruled for hundreds of years by John Uskglass - a faery king) and the more modern Southern England. It always felt to me like there was something clever here, that this was replacing some actual division in British history. I don't know what this would be however, so there was a nagging feeling of missing some part of the cleverness whenever this discussion ensued. There's a second subplot about the magicians participating in the war against Napoleon, but I never felt like it was reliant on historical details I didn't bring to the table.

The majority of the plot is driven by the personality quirks of Mr. Norrell, who wants to keep sole control of English magic. In contradiction, he's also driven to reestablish it as a great force so his nebbishy struggles to resolve his conflictions occupies a large portion of the book.

I'm slightly unclear exactly what the target market for this book is. It reads like it's aimed at slightly younger audience and it has a sprinkling of illustrations which reinforce that. I'd guess that it's aimed at the older end of the Harry Potter, but that doesn't really gibe with the focus on setting and the psycho-dramas surrounding Mr. Norrell. It's a good book, and well-written - but it's nearly as action-packed as your typical HP volume.

Overall I liked the book, but all of the people proclaiming it as one of the great fiction works of 2004 are seeing something I didn't. Despite being the same form factor of one of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle volumes it's certainly easier to read. (And there are three of those!) On the other hand, I'd say I got a lot more from System of the World than I did from Mr. Norrell. Reading back over this post I realize I'm doing a fair amount of "damning with faint praise" and that's not a fair assessment. I enjoyed the book and I'd buy another book by Clarke. I don't anticipate wanting to read it every year, but it's a book I'd recommend to people looking for a slower-paced book - one where the interest is from exploring the setting than from a plot progress. It never felt painful to pick up and read but it also never felt very difficult to put back down for another day.

I did read a surprise book over the break that I liked much more, but I need to save that for another post! :-)