Thirteen Things About Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke [#22]

I just finished Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in the wee hours of the morning. It was a very satisfying read and I considered writing a book review of sorts, but then realizing that today is Thursday and that I hadn’t participated in the Thursday Thirteen last week, I thought I’d do a list of 13 Things about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell:

1. The book looks a little bit intimidating what with it’s 800+ pages, but you quickly forget how huge it is once you get into it — except for the wrist strain you might experience from holding it up.

2. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are the two main characters of the book. We’re introduced to Mr. Norrell first, who quickly establishes himself as the only magician in England. Later on, he meets Jonathan Strange who becomes his pupil.

3. We’re repeatedly told that Mr. Norrell has the most comprehensive collection of magic books in all of England, with a library containing some four or five thousand volumes. These books are the only source of existing knowledge for anyone who wants to practice magic. One of the reasons Norrell’s collection is so large is that he’s acquired all the magic books on the market over the years — mainly to ensure that no one else has access to them — and he guards them jealously. He eventually lets Strange read some, but by no means all of them.

4. Norrell & Strange are much like Jekyll & Hyde. Where one is reclusive, insecure and intent on doing things “by the book” (Norrell), the other is gregarious, outgoing, and all too willing to experiment and push the envelope (Strange). They are like two sides of a coin alternatively enjoying each other’s company and openly engaging in feuds.

5. The book takes place in the early 1800’s during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Norrell and Strange are eager to put magic at the service of the British army in order to defeat the French. Though they meet with much resistance at first, eventually the Duke of Wellington makes good use of Jonathan Strange’s growing talent (which is largely attributed to the forty or fifty books he’s managed to wrangle from Norrell as well as his own inventiveness).

6. It quickly becomes quite clear that the kind of magic that is performed by a “real” magician in this book has nothing to do with the kind of lame lounge acts that passes for magic in these parts; there’s not a hint of a playing cards, top hats or bunnies. The author has taken every liberty so that what is called “magic” is in fact more akin to the order of miracles.

7. One of the reviews on the front cover of the book says “Ravishing… superb… combines the dark mythology of fantasy with the delicious social comedy of Jane Austen into a masterpiece of the genre that rivals Tolkien” ~ Time

8. If you want to raise someone from the dead, all you have to do is summon a faerie who will demand as payment half the person’s remaining lifetime and a left pinkie finger.

9. Unlike what I learned from faerie books as a child, faeries can be male and can also be incredibly superficial, vengeful and bloodthirsty creatures who can and will make anyone’s life a living hell… just for the heck of it.

10. You don’t have to be English to appreciate English magic and/or this book. In fact, Susanna Clarke has done a brilliant job at recreating the scenery and settings, the clothes, the sights, the smells, that you are easily transported the 19th England, whether you’ve been there or not.

11. I enjoyed the storytelling, the prose, which read very much like a 19th century book, the overall pacing, the little details such as ancient spelling on some words and the use of “footnotes” which serve to further inform the reader about English magic, yet did find that all this sometimes weighed the story down.

12. The critics part 1: “Clarke’s narrative is a studious pastiche of leisurely, discursive 19th-century prose, complete with archaic spellings (…) and a copious use of faux-pedantic footnotes. The result is a sort of Jane Austen Powers. (…) If the book ends up as engaging rather than riveting, cosy rather rather than visceral, that represents a distinguishing mark of its sub-genre as opposed to a flaw in the author’s craftsmanship.” ~ Charles Shaar Murray, The Independent

13. The critics part 2:Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is at heart a book about the present’s relationship to the past. In its pages Clarke takes the accepted fabric of English culture and inserts just a single new thread: that during the Renaissance, magic actually worked. (…) What makes the novel so impressive, however, is Susanna Clarke’s flair for pastiche and her astonishing explanatory footnotes.” ~ Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

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