Bloomsbury, 2004, 800 pages
English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call; they could command winds, mountains, and woods. But by the early 1800s they have long since lost the ability to perform magic. They can only write long, dull papers about it, while fairy servants are nothing but a fading memory.
But at Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire, the rich, reclusive Mr. Norrell has assembled a wonderful library of lost and forgotten books from England's magical past and regained some of the powers of England's magicians. He goes to London and raises a beautiful young woman from the dead. Soon he is lending his help to the government in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte, creating ghostly fleets of rain-ships to confuse and alarm the French.
All goes well until a rival magician appears. Jonathan Strange is handsome, charming, and talkative, the very opposite of Mr. Norrell. Strange thinks nothing of enduring the rigors of campaigning with Wellington's army and doing magic on battlefields. Astonished to find another practicing magician, Mr. Norrell accepts Strange as a pupil. But it soon becomes clear that their ideas of what English magic ought to be are very different. For Mr. Norrell, their power is something to be cautiously controlled, while Jonathan Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic. He becomes fascinated by the ancient, shadowy figure of the Raven King, a child taken by fairies who became king of both England and Faerie, and the most legendary magician of all. Eventually Strange's heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens to destroy not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear.
Sophisticated, witty, and ingeniously convincing, Susanna Clarke's magisterial novel weaves magic into a flawlessly detailed vision of historical England.
Who does Susanna Clarke not write like?
Susanna Clarke's Hugo-winning debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is about wizards and magic and it's set in England. Furthermore, it's set in early 19th century England (specifically, it takes place from 1806-1817) and is written in the style of novels of that period. So of course descriptions of this book typically include phrases like "Harry Potter for grown-ups" and invoke comparisons with Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. (Because Charles Dickens is the Patron Saint of Anything to Do With 19th-Century England1.)
Neither is really accurate, but I wouldn't say either is really a bad way way to describe this book. They're just vague and possibly misleading, and also do a disservice to Susanna Clarke, who certainly was not imitating either Jane Austen or J.K. Rowling. (She says in this interview that she didn't even read Harry Potter until after she'd finished her own book.)
But for the Harry Potter fan, particularly the youngish Potter fan, yes, I would say Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is definitely an excellent introduction to adult fantasy. There's enough that's similar to Harry Potter -- a magical (and very British) world with fun and mystery and darkness, but not gritty grimdarkness -- to be familiar and comforting, but Clarke is writing for grown-ups and her characters are adults who act like adults. The story deals with magic and faeries, but it also deals with war and politics and class differences and marriage and a miserly old coot who develops a great big man-crush on his younger rival. (Hey, I'm not even a slasher, and the Strange/Norrell subtext was glaring even to me.) I have previously recommended Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind as an entry-point for YA readers into adult fantasy, but Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is in a different category altogether -- whereas The Name of the Wind is a fine introduction to the tradition of epic multi-volume heroic doorstopper fantasy, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a more literary work that's likely to appeal even to non-fantasy readers.
Hence the second class of comparisons: I've most often seen Clarke compared to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope. Let's dismiss the Dickens comparisons right away; there's nothing similar about them other than that they both wrote long books set in England. Trollope comes a shade closer, inasmuch as Trollope, unlike Dickens, could actually write female characters who are nearly human, and he put as much detail into his setting as he did into his characters. Austen really isn't that far off -- it's the right time period, and the right social class, but Austen was writing sharp social satire disguised as romance, whereas Clarke.. well, she's just pretending to write a Regency-era novel, but it's not really a Regency.
Ima gonna say, though, that in some respects I think the Brontë sisters have more in common with Susanna Clarke than any of the aforementioned 19th century authors. Not stylistically, but in her use of passionate characters with an imagination that almost seems too wild to be constrained by reality -- when I reviewed Wuthering Heights, I opined that Emily would have been a fantasy novelist if born a couple centuries later. She would not have been Susanna Clarke, but I think the two ladies would get along.
Napoleon. Magic. No dragons.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is divided into three parts. Part one introduces Mr Norrell. He is a wealthy, reclusive old man who claims to be England's only remaining practicing magician, as opposed to all the theoretical magicians who have been studying magic, writing about magic, but never doing magic since magic left England.
This is our introduction to an England which looks like the historical version but we slowly learn is not -- magic was always real here, a fact which is taken for granted by everyone from commoners to kings. Magical history is part of every schoolchild's education. But for reasons not made clear, magic hasn't actually been practiced in England for hundreds of years, not since a semi-legendary historical figure known as John Uskglass, the Raven King, who once ruled Northern England after conquering it with his faerie army, vanished.
So along comes Mr Norrell claiming not only that he can do magic, but anyone can, and he's going to prove it. When met with skepticism, he causes the stones of a cathedral to speak (in fact, his spell causes stones all over town to speak). Then he goes to London, and for his next trick, raises someone from the dead.
While Mr Norrell claims to want to revive English magic and teach a new generation of English magicians how to do magic properly, it turns out that he's a fiercely secretive control freak -- in theory, he wants to bring magic back to England. In practice, he has systematically gathered every magical book he can find just to make sure no one else learns anything from them, and goes out of his way to suppress the ambitions of anyone else trying to learn magic, because he doesn't trust anyone else. Nonetheless, having demonstrated that he can actually do magic, the Ministers in London start thinking that maybe he could actually help out with their little Bonaparte problem...
Then along comes Jonathan Strange, a somewhat aimless twenty-something gentleman who reaches a stage in his life where he has to settle on something to do, and decides he'll become a magician. And with a little study, he starts doing magic. He goes to London to introduce himself to Mr Norrell, and after a great deal of mistrust and apprehension, Norrell agrees to take Strange on as a pupil. But Strange isn't content to learn only the magic Norrell wants to teach him when he wants to teach it the way he wants to teach it. He goes to the mainland and campaigns with the Duke of Wellington against Napoleon, using his magic to create and disappear roads, change the weather, and move cities that are inconveniently in an army's path.
The first half of the book sets up these two opposing figures. It's inevitable that there will be a division between them.
There will be no foolish wand waving or silly incantations in this book2
Those reading this as a fantasy novel will be interested in the world-building. On the surface, it's just early 19th-century England with magicians. But Clarke extensively footnotes the book with references to magic spells and the alternate history of this England, which was once ruled (half of it, anyway) by the Raven King. The early surface similarity to Harry Potter may be reinforced by the descriptions of magic -- magicians don't use wands, but they do sometimes use Latin (and Greek, and Anglo-Saxon, and Faerie, and whatever other language does the job), and spells are cataloged, formulaic, predictable in their effects, and transferable with sufficient instruction.
Clarke gives richer descriptions of magic and its workings, though, and did her research. There is a consistency and logic to her magic, but not much in the way of limits. Initially we see magicians who seem to have tamed magic with academic rigor and methodical study (indeed, may have tamed it right out of existence). One might also wonder how it is that after hundreds of years of magicians not being able to do anything practical, suddenly there are two of them who can perform great feats of magic. For much of the book, this seems to be a glaring plot hole -- what makes Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell so special? Nobody handed them a magic wand or a ring of power, but suddenly they're both casting spells that affect entire countries - in Strange's case, after studying magic for only a few years.
Eventually, we learn that magic is wild and full of untapped potential, and even Norrell and Strange have no idea what they're dealing with.
Clarke doesn't really go to much more effort than Rowling did to make her magic system "realistic," and for much the same reason -- it fits the needs of the story. But Clarke gives us hints early on that it's not charms and hexes. Mr Norrell raises someone from the dead. (Of course, he cheats -- with major consequences.) During the Napoleonic campaign, Mr Strange rearranges the weather and the map. Given that level of power, why can't he just make all of the French army's guns disappear? We aren't given any magical rules to explain why an army with a magician on its side still needs to fight. The closest we get to that is a social injunction; when Mr. Strange is asked, "Can a magician kill someone with magic?" he replies: "A magician could - but a gentleman never would." Quaint, hypocritical, and a little silly coming from a magician who's helping the army kill lots of French soldiers? Yes, but very appropriate to the setting and the tone of this book.
But it isn't light-hearted. In fact, it's a faerie story, and faerie stories are scary and dark, grim and oppressive beneath the glamour.
Literary fantasy needs more than magic
The magic that Norrell and Strange do in service to England isn't the important or interesting part of the story. It's what's going on with the secondary characters that will prove to have the most far-reaching consequences. The woman whom Mr Norrell raised from the dead, the black servant who attracts the favor of a capricious and powerful faerie lord, Jonathan Strange's wife Arabella, Mr Norrell's hangers-on and his mysterious servant Childermass, a street magician named Vinculus, and looming over all of them, the legendary John Uskglass, the Raven King, who walked into faerie hundreds of years ago and has never been seen since. All of these characters have lives and conflicts of their own which are largely unknown to the title characters but which are an equally important part of the story.
It is these characters who drive the reader onward through the book. Norrell and Strange are character studies and plot devices, but ultimately, they are not really the main characters. Despite writing the entire novel as if it were a gothic romance of sorts (though in a voice that's just a little too modern to be convincing as coming from Regency England), Clarke subverts our expectations in the end. The most powerful characters (socially and magically) prove to be merely instruments, while the weakest and most hapless (a black servant and two women, all imprisoned by faerie enchantment) are the ones who actually decide the outcome.
The surface of the beck seethed and boiled where the gentleman was imprisoned. Stephen knelt upon a flat stone and leant over the water. "I am sorry," he said. "You intended nothing but kindness, I know."
The gentleman's hair streamed out like silver snakes in the dark water. His face was a terrible sight. In his fury and hatred he began to lose his resemblance to humankind: his eyes grew further apart, there was fur upon his face and his lips rolled back from his teeth in a snarl.
A voice inside Stephen's mind said: "If you kill me, you will never know your name!"
"I am the nameless slave," said Stephen. "That is all I have ever been - and today, I am content to be nothing more."
This is also where the modernity of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is exposed. Clarke does not make the mistake made by so many writers of historical fiction, of giving 19th-century characters 21st-century sentiments. There are certainly a lot of relatively progressive characters in the book, but they're progressive in a privileged sort of way. It's the concerns of the less privileged -- Stephen, the black servant, son of a slave, who reflects that England has abolished slavery, but Englishmen in other countries still own slaves, and Lady Pole and Mrs Strange, who fight so hard to overcome the enchantment that has imprisoned and silenced them (surely an intentional metaphor, but not one the reader is hit over the head with) -- who make this a modern novel, simply because they are recognized and their lives are treated as being just as important as those of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
What Negative Reviewers Say
everything about the description of this book sounded like a promising, dreamy book - the type i could get lost in: dark, brooding 1800's england, with magic, intrigue, history... constantly compared to harry potter crossed with charles dickens...i beg to differ... maybe if they meant harry potter's most dull class on the history of magic - a dry historical reference book that hermione would read... and bleak house (which is probably the only dickens book i couldn't ever bring myself to read - the title - come on - and i love a dark story, but seriously!)
I have only one thing to say to those who don't like this book:
The 1-star reviews seem to have a single common thread: it's a big wordy book with a lot of exposition (and footnotes3) and it takes a while for the plot to get going. Along with lots of "I was told this was Charles Dickens/Jane Austen + Harry Potter and it wasn't!" (Or the reverse: "It reads like a Regency novel and I hate Regency novels!")
"An adult Harry Potter!" That's what I was told. The first 2 or 3 chapters are very intriguing. Then it becomes the most boring book I've ever read. I've tried to make myself read it more than once, and I just can't.
So yeah, this is a book that requires a bit of patience, not for those who want to see magical duels and faeries right away. And given the historical setting and the tone Clarke is emulating, there can be a certain amount of frustration with much of the suspense being maintained by means of characters who desperately want to tell things to other characters who desperately want to know them, but can't. The barriers to communication are social, magical, and sometimes arbitrary plot contrivances. But if leisurely novels don't bother you (and honestly, as big as this book is, it's a much faster read than most SF&F novels of similar size) and you aren't allergic to pseudo-19th-century prose, then it's a very satisfying book.
Despite the positive reviews here, I found this book drudgerous. After reading patiently through more than 2/3 of the book and waiting for a plot complication, point, or reasonable struggle to emerge, I made the decision to stop reading the book.
There are too many chapters in this book filled with contrived, and poor, period dialogue and nothing else, no plot struggle, no complication, only scene, characters, and dialogue - no contribution or struggle. I felt like the chapters had as much substance as an episode in a 20 year long running soap opera. There was as much substance here as ash after a forest fire. I would not necessarily discount the author though since modern fiction is nearly as much in the editing as in the writing.
I am a patient reader when the work demands it. This work didn't. It was frustrating, boring, sophomoric, and poorly edited.
1 Pet peeve. And while we're at it, anything before 1837 was not "Victorian"!
2 The Potter references are so hard to resist.
3 This is much less annoying when Clarke does it.
Verdict: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has made it onto my list of "top fantasy recommendations," without any reservations. Go ahead and call it "Harry Potter for grown-ups" or a "Jane Austen fantasy" if you have to. Any fantasy lover should enjoy it, but in particular, I think it's a great choice for the YA reader looking for something more adult without jumping into blood-and-guts fantasy, and also a great choice for the literary reader who's not much of a fantasy fan.