Saturday, August 13, 2011
Thorin's Review - Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Title: Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Series: Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: August 2006
What is it About?
The book is set in England around the Napoleonic wars. England used to be bathed in magic, with most of its northern regions ruled by a Faerie-raised human magician named the Raven King who ruled with an army of dark faeries. But that was then, and now magic has mostly left English magicians. No one knows why. All current "magicians" can do is study the histories of the phenomenal magic magicians used to wield.
However, two men emerge who can do real magic. The first is a taciturn, professorial, unpleasant and meek man named Mr. Norrell, who is able at one point to bring a young noble woman back from the dead. He is desperate to study magic, but at the same time so fearful that whenever he finds other "magicians," he drives them out of business. The other is a charismatic but absent minded, fickle and reckless man named Johnathan strange.
This is the best book I've read in a long time. The funny thing is, I had an unsolicited review copy sitting around for several years but it didn't look interesting. Shannon got another copy when the paperback came out, and as you can see, I'm ecstatic that I gave it a chance.
Like all the best books, this one is really about the characters, and those characters are fascinating. It also covers a wide stretch of time, so a lot happens and the characters are really evolving over the course of it. Norrell emerges as the first real magician anyone has seen in centuries, creates a stir, revives the noble woman with the help of a dangerous fairy who then begins kidnapping people to come to his nightly nightmarish balls, and eventually sees Strange as a rival, then student, then peer. Strange is a young nobleman who discovers magic just after he marries a beautiful bride. His magic takes him into Norell's tutelage, but then into the Napoleonic wars in Europe where he fights with under Wellington. Eventually the fairy mentioned above fakes his wife's death and steals her, and Strange goes further into magic and madness than anyone has in centuries to confront him, even though he never bother to wonder about his wife's suspicious death,
The book is just magical and fascinating all the time, with a great mix of typically fantastical plot points, but also intricate human interactions. Clarke is said to write in a pastiche of victorian styles--borrowing a little Dickens, a little Austen--and I liked it. It flirts with Victorian romance, but never so long that the book becomes boring or mawkish, it always maintains that Harry Potter aura of discovering the secrets and powers of magic. A great read for anyone who liked Harry Potter, but is a little older now and wants to read about the themes from a more adult point of view.