Thursday, March 13, 2014

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, A Novel, by Susanna Clarke

This week I've decided to tackle the interesting novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke's first book. As a first novel from an author, this book is incredibly well put together and the sheer amount of work and effort that went into it really comes through. It's an odd book for sure, and by nature seems to defy classification into a genre, but it's good because of its peculiarities. I think it would be hard to pin down what sort of audience would like this book, as even the description in the book flap failed to do this novel proper justice. However, if you're interested in fantasy, magic, and the early nineteenth century, I think you'll enjoy this book.

This novel is set in an alternate history version of England where northern England was ruled for three hundred years by a powerful magician called the Raven King, who also ruled kingdoms in the realm of Fairie and beyond Hell itself. However, the Raven King disappeared and magic slowly began to fade from England, until by the early 1800's it is only a historical curiosity, studied by gentlemen scholars with little else to do with their time. That is, until the arrival of the magicians Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange. Together they begin performing practical magic to help the government of Great Britain succeed in their war against Napoleon and spark new national interest in a largely forgotten art.

One of the things I was really impressed with was the extensive body of lore that Clarke has created for her alternate history of England. A large body of footnotes provides the reader additional details about the magical history of England and how it shaped the country, including such tidbits as the fact that in the English constitution George III is only steward of Northern England in the Raven King's absence and shall surrender it to him if he should ever return. It's little details like that which make the world so much richer and more believable to the reader, especially to a historian such as myself. The fact that certain characters sought to make the Raven King no more than a myth made it possible to believe that this story happened in our own world, although later events in the novel clearly separated it from our own. The extensive details made the book feel extremely grounded and magic seem almost a mundane fact of life.

The other thing that really impressed me about this book was how Clarke managed to imitate the style of nineteenth century novels extremely well. Obviously I am no expert of nineteenth century literature, and I find many older books rather challenging to read, but Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell seemed to capture many of the qualities of older novels. The overall plot meanders back and forth and can be a challenge to keep track of at times. Characters are introduced or disappear with little ceremony and little explanation of what role they'll play in the larger plot. In many books I'd see this as a weakness, demanding a tighter, more focused plot and better use of its characters, but somehow Clarke manages to make it work in her book. The style so perfectly matches the setting of the book that, coupled with the extensive lore created for novel, it makes you believe this could be an actual Victorian novel written about recent events for the delight of an English audience.

The biggest feeling I got after finishing this book was I felt like there were larger events going on and the characters we fulfilling roles in these events without even realizing it. None of the characters ever got the full picture and we the readers only got a slightly more complete picture. Something definitely happened and there was a definite change in the world of the book which we can perceive, but the full implications of that change are beyond both our and the characters' understanding. Again, this is something that would bug the heck out of me in another book because I like knowing everything when I finish a book and fully understanding what's happened. In this case, it again works and I feel like it's very intentional on the part of the author. The characters aren't fully in control because they simply aren't aware of the larger forces at play in their lives and fulfill roles provided to them without them even being aware. If anything, it leaves me wondering what the return of magic means for an England that has just become the world's greatest power and how magic will mesh with industrialism. Rumors of a sequel bring promise that such questions will be explored in a later novel.

- Kalpar

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