Books ó Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Magic in a Strange world. Susanna Clarkeís debut novel is a startling affair.

By Glenn Given []

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004,782 pages

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a tome whose scope is rivaled only by its charm. Clarkeís opening chapters carry the unmistakable tone of academia steeped in cheekiness. She lays out her alternative history of early 19th century England as a scholarly examination of the return of ďgood English magicĒ to the land. See, wizardy has all but been lost for nearly 300 years since the last days of John Uskglass, Northern Englandís mysterious Raven King. The magicians of 1806 are only of the theoretical sort, never ones to sully themselves with practical magic. Content only to study the arcane via text and hypothesis. Until, of course, one intellectual asks why. Why hasnít a feat of real magic been performed in hundreds of years? Why, if the halls of the learned are so chock full of wizardly lore hasnít anybody cast a spell.

The short answer, they canítóeither they donít really know  or they donít posses the talent. Enter the bookish Mr. Norrell, a Yorkshire hermit rumored to posses quite the extensive library at Hurtfew Abbey. Entreated by the Learned Society of York Magicians to testify as to the existence of practical magic, Norrell sets off to restore English magic to the land. Magic which, he has always known was possible, and could easily have performed had any persons thought to ask him. Having astounded the local township by enchanting the chapel statuaries into song and animation he quickly finds himself a major celebrity. Something he is not at all acoustomed to. Moving to London, Norrell finds skepticism abounds. It takes a troublesome pact with a diabolical Faery and the resurrection of a well connected society bride to finally break the doubts of the British elite.

Meanwhile Jonathan Strange, a minor gentleman, having nothing better to do, his family dead and his lands sold decides to up and relocate to the city. Encountering a ostracized rouge he is delivered a rambling incoherency that can only be one thing, a prophecy. Deciding then and there to become a magician, just, well, because it seems like an interesting thing to do Strange quickly discovers his natural aptitude for spellcraft. After whipping up a few home brew incantation (since the paranoid Mr. Norrell has secured the ownership of all magical tomes of note) Strange finds himself apprenticed to Norrell.

The real story is of course, not the magic, not the lore or the war against Napoleon (won in no small part due to the great feats of battlefield sorcery by Magician-at-Arms Strange). The real story is the growing tension between the master and apprentice and the price that their respective magical capacities exacts. Interwoven with this intricate tale of jealousy, the powers of secrecy and the madness of loss is a rich history of Britannia. A wonderfully detailed false tapestry of conquests, kingdoms, monarchs and magicians.

From the three kingdoms of the Raven King (northern England, a land in Faery and another holding on the far side of Hell) to the Faerie servants of the last great magician, Clarke releases just enough tidbits to statisfy your tangential wondering and pique your curiosity but never enough to sour the illusion.

Clarke masterfully travels the road between high fantasy and historical fetishism in Jonathan Strange. She dances the obsessive language of academic discourse, possessing all its enticing detail and metaphysical weight. And still Clarke fully-embodies her actors with depth, passions motives and a sense of context. Strange and Norrell are players in a grander production of politics, empires, spirits, wars, prophecies and the fate of lost kingdoms. Thankfully, an deft hand draws us through this imbroglio with assurance in her prose. She navigates the obtuse cadence of proper English at itís Proper-est with aplomb and ably shifts tone from intellectual to wondrous, humorous to sinister often withering pages. Her tangents and footnotes are so endearingly distracting that I often wished for extra chapters just to see where the thoughts were running towards.

It may not be recognized soon (although an amazingly positive review from modern Fantasy master Neil Gaimen will certainly attest) but Jonathan Strange is one of the most daring, intelligent, playful and flat out engrossing works of fiction to have been written in the past 25 years.

- Glenn Given

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