Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

 Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy / Literary
Publisher: Bloomsbury
First Published: September 8, 2004
Pages: 864

Rating - 9 out of 10

How to write a review of a book so expansive, so epic, and so complex as "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell?" I have been putting it off, and while I am not entirely sure that I'll be able to do it justice, I have so very many thoughts on it that it simply wouldn't be right to neglect reviewing it altogether.

First of all, the storyline. In an alternate 1800's England, magic was once an integral part of battle, politics, and royalty, but died out hundreds of years ago. Now, the only people who care about such things any longer are men who study magic but never actually perform any. That is, until an eccentric, hermit-like man named Mr. Norrell comes along. Formerly known only as a man with a large library, Norrell is thrust into the public eye when he performs a public bit of magic in a Yorkshire cathedral. His hopes are to become a political figure and help fight the Napoleonic Wars with his spells, but instead, he is viewed more as a curiosity to London society.
When a man's beautiful young fiancee unexpectedly passes away, Norrell is called upon for help. Norrell agrees, and raises her from death with the help of a fairy. Fairies practiced magic alongside humans hundreds of years ago, but they were never trusted, and have not reappeared in the land for hundreds of years. Norrell himself views the race as treacherous and dangerous, and yet, he secretly agrees to the fairy man's terms in return for Lady Pole's life.
In another part of the country, a younger man named Jonathan Strange has a random encounter with Vinculus, a fraudulent street magician with a massively important secret.
The event leads Strange to move to London and seek out Mr. Norrell, establishing his place as the second magician in England. Norrell takes Strange on as his pupil, and at first, the relationship between them is a grudging friendship.
Strange's role in the public eye is quite different from his tutor's, and as he is younger, far more personable, and irresistibly stylish, he inevitably gains more popularity than Norrell could ever have managed.
Strange becomes caught up in the Napoleonic Wars, aiding the army and actually going into battle with the soldiers and scheming with the generals.
During the years he is away, back in London the fairy who helped Norrell lurks over Lady Pole's life, constructing a dark, murky, and eerily enchanting world of dances and balls that he uses to suck in unsuspecting mortals.
When Jonathan does return to London, he finds his relationship with Norrell changed forever, as their magical ethics, ideas, and practices have drifted too far apart to exist alongside each other.
As they battle with each other in the form of books, newspaper printings, and slights, Jonathan's own wife is unknowingly becoming involved with the perilous fairy world that her friend Lady Pole is already enslaved to.
Mrs. Strange isn't the only one spiraling into darkness, however: Jonathan's open-minded approach to new types of magic is leading him deeper and deeper into blacker and blacker spells.
Norrell is perhaps the only one who realizes the seriousness of his former pupil's situation, and is perhaps the only one capable of coming to his aid, despite the fact that the two magicians of England are locked in a war against each other.

As long as the above paragraphs are, they can only encompass the merest sliver of what this massive book is truly about. JS & MN could easily have been drawn out into a long series of ten books or more, or at the least a trilogy or quartet.
I absolutely loved the complexity of this book. It is like a well structured, weaving and winding maze. There are far, far too many corridors, deceptive tunnels, twisting back streets, and prominent passages to possibly keep them all going in your mind at once.
There are many, many characters - it may be advisable to keep track of them by noting their names on a card and referring back to it as needed - but every one of them have their part to play in the story, and no one is added unnecessarily.
While I am aware that the very noticeable complexity of this huge novel may drive some readers crazy, I embraced this aspect of it joyously.
Clarke has created an entirely new world that is woven seamlessly with actual history. While most authors set up the scenery and then work on (hopefully) realistic characters and events, Clarke takes this idea a few levels further. Indeed, I believe that my idea of a vivid setting will now always be forever changed, as Clarke has certainly raised the bar here.
Like Tolkien, Clarke has invented an entire world, complete with culture, history, lore, rumors, customs, fads, politics, historical figures, and back stories.
Many of these points are told in her footnotes at the bottom of many of the pages, which may give a mere sentence of explanation or go on for pages and pages, giving you entire stories about people, places, or events in a news reporter, unbiased and factual manner.
I cannot express how much I loved these footnotes. They may have even elevated my rating an entire star. Whenever I saw one at the bottom of an upcoming page, I could hardly wait to read it.
Everyone in this book has a story. Minor characters that are not mentioned very many times still manage to be deep vignettes that you wonder about. If Clarke wrote a separate book on every single minor character, I do believe that every single one of them would be fascinating, even if they all related only events that already happened in "JS & MN."
The result of such finely detailed imagining is a world that Clarke ingrains within every page of this masterpiece. You sink into her world, and even after you finish the last page, you still look at the real world a bit differently after such a vivid immersion.

The characters are all exceedingly well done, even if they are a bit distanced. Readers must be aware that Clarke's writing style isn't one that gives you a thought-by-thought description of individual's minds. Her style of writing is closer to Jane Austen than to J.K. Rowling.

Mr. Gilbert Norrell, who takes over most of the first half of the story, is not exactly a lovable character that you wish existed in real life. In fact, I would say that it is far more likely that you will take a disliking to Mr. Norrell, perhaps even a rather strong disliking.
He is stuffy, arrogant, and prudish, and believes himself to be The (yes, with a capital T) end and beginning of magical knowledge. His ideas are law, in his own mind, and anyone who contradicts them is immediately dismissed as an insufferable imbecile. Though he eventually agrees to tutor Strange in magic, he is still unwilling to fully impart limitless knowledge, shown most through his refusal of admitting Jonathan into his library. It is only toward the end of the book that Norrell at last offers to give Jonathan a free pass to his books, and then, only as a bribe.
Norrell buys every single magical book in the entire country, and in other countries as well. When there is an auction of five or so magical manuscripts, Norrell rushes to buy them all, at any cost, and he is famous for buying out entire stores that are attempting to sell spell books.
He wants no one else in the entire world to have access to books on magic, even bringing politics and laws into this unofficial ban. See page 360.
This obsessive and shockingly assumptive aspect of Mr. Norrell reminded me of how the church did not allow commoners to read the Bible in medieval times.

Our second magician, Jonathan Strange, is far more likable, though he may in fact be less 'good' than his rival.
From the very first time that we meet him, he reveals himself to be an impressionable man, which may perhaps hint that he isn't quite as strong as he ought to be. In his meeting with Vinculus, he is told that he is meant to be a magician. From that moment onward, he is. Yes, yes, it was fate and all that... But really, now.
Jonathan has a much more personable nature, which results in his popularity in London. Originally, it was Norrell's greatest wish that his magic be involved with politics and war, and while it is Norrell who starts off the trend, it is Strange who actually travels alongside the army, helps draw up battle strategies, and battles the French face to face.
Though we know that he is a talented magician, we are also well aware that Strange is inexperienced, and there are quite a few near disasters. In many instances (speaking to dead enemy spies, creating a water-man to put out a fire, etc) his spells are helpful at the time but result in more long-term negativity.
Jonathan is more boyish and relateable than Norrell, and I think it is pretty near inevitable that most readers will side with him.
Even as he slips into the darker realms of magic, we sympathize with him. I wanted to plunge into the darkness with him and drag him out, as his descent was horrifying to witness. It was gradual, so that one day, everything is fine, and then a few hundred pages later, we realize that our beloved character has become almost... evil. What has happened to him?

There are other characters that fascinated me, but to list them all would simply take up far too much room, and this is already a very long review.
Norrell's devoted servant Childermass was one of my favorites. He very much reminded me of a Dickens character. Page 49, when he is first described in detail, contains a few insightful paragraphs about him. Childermass could, in fact, be viewed as the true second magician of England. He reveals toward the end of the book that he has known spells and magic for years. After all, he is Norrell's closest confidante, and it likely was impossible for him not to. Always in the shadows, Childermass provides a strong backbone to the more public figures of his master and Strange, and much relies on him, no matter how little his acknowledged.
Lady Pole is a Gothic, eerily beautiful character. She is child-like, and despite her acidic bitterness toward the world around her, a certain innocence pervades her every action, and her story was extremely sad. If Norrell had not raised her from the dead, it would probably have been the better for her.

Clarke's approach to magic in this story was also extremely interesting. I wanted to take just a little peek into some of Norrell's books of magic, to see what secrets they held.
The magic is approached as a very literary, philosophical, scientific, almost theological thing.
There are no waving wands or silly sounding spells here. The magic is, like everything else here, complex.
Every spell has a history and a consequence, and a back-story.
And no matter how much of an expert Norrell professes to be, the truth is that neither magician truly understands the magic completely.
Norrell does his best to banish the Raven King (the most famous magician of all time, and former king of England) from modern magic, while Strange reminds everyone that it was the Raven King who practically invented magic. Without him, would there be any magic at all?
A sense of confusion exists through-out the story, as two men do their best to master forces that are far beyond what a single human can handle on his own.
The fairies seem to have a better grip on magic, and yet they twist it to their own ends. The fairies found here are no pretty Tinkerbells. They are dangerously intelligent, deceptive, and darkly evil creatures that are best avoided (as we certainly see quite soon in the story). Perhaps, the reader may think to himself, it isn't the fairies who twist magic into darkness, but the magic that twists the fairies into ethereal, ruined beings.

I absolutely loved this book, and I spent more time with it than I have with any other book in a long while. Though I am a fast reader, I slowed down my speed considerably as I went through this one. It just seemed right - this is a book to be savored.
I rarely ever re-read books. Even my 5 star books are hardly ever revisited. Perhaps the only books I have ever read more than once (besides childhood books from when I was very young) are Tolkien.
However, I have a suspicion that I'll be coming back to Clarke, and I also have a feeling that I will appreciate and enjoy this classic even more the second time around. That's just the type of work that this is.

I have wished a few times that I could find an author who wrote new, modern books in the style of the classics.Well, I have found her.
Though, I may not have many other books to choose from for quite some time, because she took ten years on JS & MN.
Clarke's writing style is magnificently classic, and I couldn't believe how close she sounded to Jane Austen.

Though it is certainly not for every reader, I cannot think of a single flaw in this epic story. I loved every detail here, and this is truly a masterpiece.
I hope that this review inspires you to read this very impressive volume. It is a book to be appreciated and revered, and hopefully in 100 years time, this book will still have well-earned place on many shelves.

Brava, Susanna Clarke. I am beyond impressed.