From the Blurb:
“ The year is 1806. centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell, whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrell. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms that between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.”
I recently read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by UK author Susanna Clarke. Despite my initial hesitation at the daunting and considerable detail and length of the novel, I found like those before me, these misgivings paled in comparison to the wonder of the book itself.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell follows two main protagonists in the early 1800s in their efforts to reinstate English magic. Both are talented magicians and while Mr Norrell asserts himself as England’s magician and hoards all books ever published of magic, he soon takes on an enterprising student in the gentleman Jonathan Strange. While Norrell is fearful of new things and sudden changes, Strange is his opposite. The two magicians serve the English parliament through their combined efforts to defend England and defeat Napoleon Bonaparte. However, Norrell can never shake his fear that Strange will better him and deliberate actions to undermine their trust and future partnership are laid down from the first. But the darkest secret of Norrell’s early magic that causes the greatest danger. In very early attempts to gain favour in London society, Norrell performed magic beyond his own talents by seeking the aid of a Faerie which he bound to himself as a servant. Norrell keeps this secret from Strange and much of English society even after the two magicians quarrel and the friendship is broken.
The following years of bitter rivalry between Strange and Norrell see the exploitation of both magicians’ greatest weaknesses. Norrell has his fear and paranoia played against himself and Strange has his arrogance and rashness turned against himself. Throughout it all, the beings of Faerie manoeuvre and plot to overthrow both magicians and so retain hold on the dominion of a Faerie kingdom. The final battle between Norrell and Strange becomes a partnership to save innocent mortals stolen into Faerie including Jonathan Strange’s wife.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a delightful and often dark tale, and a skilful alternate history of the Georgian era. The prose feels realistic as though truly compiled from Georgian authors. Despite the seemingly slower pace of the book’s action, the tone does not feel overburdened by it. High praise for the philosophical accounts, a detailed history and characters, and the introspection of morality led to a lingering sense of satisfaction, of closure, for the ending of the stand-alone novel.
Highly recommended for fans of alternate history, Gaslamp fantasies and gothic fantasies. Despite the daunting size of the book, it is a beautiful story, masterfully written and compelling. Well worth the read!
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