Thursday, April 24, 2014

Heather Reviews: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I am really, really sorry about this.  I honestly believed I had scheduled it and then, by chance, I was looking at the blog a few days ago and noticed this review wasn't on it, then I realized what I had actually done and felt like a butt.  -__-  Ugh.

Title:  Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Author:  Susanna Clarke
Released:  2004
Publisher:  Bloomsbury
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.

I didn't want to finish this book. Not because it was terrible but because it was SO good that I wanted to keep reading the book.

This was SUCH a good book. It's the kind of book I think about when people say stuff like, "Stay in with a good book, a mug of tea and a blanket." That good. I knew I was going to love it from hearing about it, but I read the first chapter back in January and I was struck by how much I loved it, but I wanted to put off reading it because, when I love a book, I almost never want to start it because then it'll mean ending it and Susanna Clarke has been working on her second novel since this one was published! I mean, yes, there's The Ladies of Grace Adieu (which I am EAGERLY looking forward to starting because it focuses on how women gain power through magic and that sounds amazing), but that's just a collection of previously published short stories. I need another novel from Clarke like I need air!

But let's back up a bit.

JS&MN opens on a society of magicians in York. A new member, John Segundus, wonders why they don't practice magic anymore, which leads to a rift in the society. Another member, Mr Honeyfoot, agrees with his stance about practicing magic and says that he's heard of another magician, the titular Mr Norrell, who owns a large library of books concerning magic. Segundus and Honeyfoot visit Norrell one day, ask him why he believes no one practices magic anymore and Norrell shocks them by saying that he himself practices it. This kicks off the rest of the book.

I've heard people say that they can't get into the book because it's too slow, and I honestly have to give a warning that if you've ever read a classic and been bored, this probably isn't the book for you. A lot of the book is given over characters and things happening through dialogue. There's not really any time action is really happening. But I could be completely wrong and someone who doesn't like those things in other books could read this and adore it like I do. The only way to know how you'll like it is to read it.

I loved everything about this book, honestly. The characters were marvelous and there was never anyone I rolled my eyes at when they came up in the narration. I hated all the characters who were meant to be disliked (but even in that way I liked them!). Mr Norrell could range from completely sympathetic to absolutely frustrating in his way of going about things; Strange was my favorite of the two, he was dedicated to practicing magic even when he didn't have any texts to study from, even when it meant using questionable methods of magic.

Then there was Childermass, Norrell's servant who was much more than he seemed.  While I had doubts about his first appearance, I found myself loving him at the end.  Stephen Black who was by far the most "good" character (most righteous character, I mean), and I felt like it was impossible not to like him.  There are just points in the story where he asks a favor of someone for another character, EVEN WHEN THAT MEANS HE STILL HAS TO SUFFER!  Vinculus the prophet / possible charlatan, who early in the novel got under Norrell's skin but who Childermass recognized for who he actually was.  He was a really fun character and if Clarke's next novel features more on him and Childermass, I am absolutely for it.

While up above I said that The Ladies of Grace Adieu focuses more on female characters and magic, this book isn't without wonderful women characters. From Lady Pole, whose "affliction" renders her housebound for a good chunk of the novel; to Arabella Strange, Jonathan's wife who puts up with and encourages his exploration of the magical, even going so far as to try to get him books of magic to study; to Flora Greysteel, whose storyline you'll find yourself supporting, but winds up being another character in the vein of Stephen Black -- someone noble.

Even the designated distrustful characters (which isn't really a spoiler, since Vinculus' prophecy will let you know early on) Drawlight and Lascelles. Drawlight was someone you could imagine knowing in real life, he knows how to play his position, he could anger you with how well he manipulated Norrell! Lascelles . . . well, I can't say too much about him without giving away spoilers, but by the end, when it's him versus a character you find you care about, you'll be angered by his actions. There's even an instance of him versus Drawlight that I actually realized I really wanted Drawlight to walk away the victor in that encounter!

But of course, the real main character is the magic.  The way it returns and how it affects the lives of all the characters it touches, how some characters come to view it as a nuisance and others are, forgive the pun, enchanted by it.  How it takes a slow journey from being something only a few characters know how to do to returning to England in everything.

Clarke's writing is superb and beautiful.  She sets scenes that made me really feel them through the page.  The part where Strange is trying to help the King and he runs into that creepy winter place?  God, I loved it. It was creepy, it was beautiful, but you definitely knew that it wasn't right. The initial magic Norrell does to spite the society in York?  It was beautiful, sad and slightly creepy.  I got chills when the one little statue was the last voice to stop speaking.  Then there was Stephen Black's first trip to Lost-Hope castle and the descriptions of the music and the gowns the women wore.  The writing there highlighted how other worldly everything was there.

The footnotes?!  If you read this blog, you know how much I love Terry Pratchett and his footnotes.  Here. . . oh, it's like I was in Heaven.  The footnotes here explained little backstories and things not completely relevant to the plot at hand, which means that large chunks of text were not devoted to awkwardly explaining what a character meant when everyone in the book-world already knew.  And oh, the footnotes were worth it, the stories and world building Clarke does in them is masterful.  They are these little asides that make the world so real, you'll actually wish this had happened and that English magic was a legitimate thing.

I had to genuinely put the book down because the copy I had clocks in at 782 and I was reading 150+ pages a day when I started.  Everyone says that the beginning in slow, but I honestly never thought that and when I hit the end of the 'Mr Norrell' section, I just thought, "wow, it's already been 200 pages?"  I had to put it down and force myself to read other books in the meantime because I just didn't want to finish it (and when I did, prayed Clarke was gonna announce her new novel right then and there).

There are charcoal drawings that accompany the text on various pages and these are beautiful in their own rights.  There aren't many of them, so don't think this is another Captain Bluebear, but they are there and they definitely enhance the story in their own way!

If there are any concerns about this being an adult book, let me dispel them:  This book is written in a similar vein to Jane Austen's books, something like Jane Eyre.  It reads like a book actually written in the 1800s.  The only curse word in it is "damned" and that is stylized as "D----d!" and there are no sex scenes.

My one and only regret with the novel is that I bought it at a used bookstore.  DON'T GET ME WRONG, I love use bookstores!  But I wish I had been able to give Clarke money for this, I feel like I owe her something for how much I loved this book.  I've already put her on my list of favorite authors on GR and I am on pins and needles for something - anything! - new from her.

As to the final question of the novel, which I thought was absolutely brilliant given the effects of English magic, I feel like Childermass's answer was the only one I can get behind;  I consider myself to be both a Strangite and a Norrellite.

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