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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke Book Review | SFReader.com
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke Genre: Alternate History Publisher: Tor Published: 2004 Review Posted: 9/21/2006 Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 8 out of 10
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Book Review by Phillip A. Ellis
Have you read this book?
With Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke has created an alternate history of England, where, once, there had been a magical kingdom coexistant with the early post Anglo-Saxon dynasties, and in which magic had been in abeyance for centuries. The novel itself is set during the Napoleonic wars, and it focuses upon how magic was to return to England, and whether it would be successful, all in the gambit of a single, albeit lengthy, novel.
One of the pleasures afforded by a lengthy novel is that allowed through its richness and complexity. For some fantasies, such as Lord of the Rings, these are inventions, solely or primarily the author's creations; for some, such as Finney's Time and Again, they derive from reality, the actual world, in which the fantastic occurs. This book derives its richness and complexity from the collision (or perhaps that should be collusion) between aspects of the real world with its fantastic world.
This real world, the Napoleonic wars and England, is an important element of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell's success. It is also an important factor in other aspects of the book's success: it reads, as some other critics have pointed out, with the social wit of Austen, although it lacks her concerns with the middle class, but its emphasis upon the life and careers of the eponymous characters, as well as its judicious and felicitous use of footnotes, creates links to other genres of nineteenth century letters, such as biography and history. Thus, the real world complexity is in part through setting, in part through the medium of the novel itself.
This is, then, the fantasy novel for those interested in part in nineteenth century literature and in historical novels set in the same period. And, to add to the richness of both the magical setting, and the real world setting, this is an extended character study, not only of Norrell and Strange, but also of the many lesser, albeit no less fascinating, characters that populate the novel's world. The portrait of Byron naturally enchanted me, given my love of the real Byron's verse, and the humour with which the author has leavened the book touches even his figure.
And it is, finally, a richly humourous book. This humour is understated, and is neither malicious, nor barbed. It does serve to make Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell the entertaining and absorbing read that it is. This is definitely a book to enjoy and to reread. It is at times affecting, at many times witty, and at all times a scintillant, fascinating read. It should become a classic, and it will, I hope and predict, help both contemporary and future fantasistes see beyond faux-medievalism towards a richer conception of the fantastic in our world. This wider, enriching view of our world is one of this book's gifts, and a very welcome one at that.
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