Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Book Cover Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Susanna Clarke
Fantasy
Tor Books
September 8, 2004
Paperback
1006

Sophisticated, witty, and ingeniously convincing, Susanna Clarke's magisterial novel weaves magic into a flawlessly detailed vision of historical England. She has created a world so thoroughly enchanting that eight hundred pages leave readers longing for more.

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.

 

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell isn’t the first alternate history Napoleonic Wars story I’ve read. But it is fairly different from what I’ve picked up before. Now, the setting alone was a breath of fresh air. Most of the fantasy novels I’ve seen are either pure fantasy, set in their own world, or modern-day urban fantasy. It’s fairly unusual for a story to be set on Earth in an earlier time period. But it does still use the fairly standard trope of magic coming back. Not that it really left, humans just tend to ignore magic as technology progresses cause that how it be.

Now, this book is slow. That probably goes without saying with the page count being a little over 1000. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell leans heavily towards its 19th England setting. It is very, very British. The characters are proper English gentlemen. The book’s length gives plenty of time for characterization, worldbuilding, and everything else a fantasy story needs. The meat of the story starts snowballing when one of the characters, who is as overconfident as he is egotistical, makes a deal with a fey. Without specifying some key details. And if you know anything about fey folklore, you see where this is going.

If you like fantasy + history and long reads, you’ll probably enjoy this book. That being said, it’s pretty obvious this book won’t be for everyone. I loved how well-researched this was and that large parts of it read like a textbook. And I loved it’s a unique story that doesn’t just stick to the standard fantasy format. Magic, while it is the catalyst for the story, is kind of secondary to the plot and characters. The magic is important, but it’s not what drives the plot. Having any fantasy book that breaks the norms is just wonderfully refreshing.

September 5, 2021

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