Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has been sitting on my bookshelf, in all its hardcover glory, since 2004, when it was first released. I bought it without having read any extracts, on the strength of its reviews alone (as well as Neil Gaiman’s flattering blurb). I did not, however, have the physical strength to hold up this 800-page doorstop long enough to read it and not concuss myself, so it’s languished and collected dust, ever since. Until, of course, I decided to download the Kindle sample and read a few lines, and was annoyed that I hadn’t gotten around to reading it sooner in the first place.
I switched between the hardcover and the Kindle edition, but ended up reading the Kindle edition for the last two-thirds of the book. The hardcover, first edition is gorgeous—beautifully typeset on high-quality paper. I would have preferred a sewn, rather than glued edition, but everything is glued these days, so that’s just a pipe dream on my part. I ended up switching to the Kindle edition, because the hardcover itself is rather heavy and the print is a fit small to be squinting at late at night. The Kindle edition is not perfect. There are many instances of words being squashed together or superfluous dashes being inserted where they should not be (probably a quirk of the OCR software the publisher used to scan the book). I did not notice, as with The Crimson Petal and the White, entire sections going missing, so that’s a plus. But overall, the Kindle edition is inferior to the print. The only major selling point is that the reader can increase the font size and search the book quite easily.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a historical fantasy set in England in the early 1800s around the time of the Napoleonic wars. Magic, once an integral part of English life, has weakened and receded into the background, the subject of theoretical study, rather than practical application. Mr. Norrell, a fussy scholar, jealous of his studies and magical library, fashions himself as the greatest (and only) English magician. He quickly climbs the social ladder and secures the esteem of important government officials by unleashing his formidable magic against the French. Jonathan Strange, a self-taught magician, soon becomes Norrell’s first pupil (and perhaps his only true friend). But Strange, having quickly grown in his powers, soon begins to oppose Norrell’s ideas of English magic—an act which threatens to undo all of Norrell’s achievements and alter England’s magical landscape forever.
Susanna Clarke’s novel feels like it stepped out of a time machine straight from the 1800s. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is narrated in a style not unlike Jane Austen (complete with dry, gentle wit). Clarke also preserves historically accurate spellings (such as “chuse” instead of “choose”) to lend to the book’s verisimilitude. I was left wondering whether there was a tradition of English magic of which I had been previously unaware—that’s how authentic and convincing this book is.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is so massive in large part because of the huge amounts of research that went into the book, from the wars, to everyday habits, to the celebrities of the day (Lord Byron has a hilarious cameo). The book is also huge because it is not an action-driven book, unlike many fantasy novels. It reads like literary fiction, allowing the reader to know and understand the characters’ lives and motivations—and it’s their motivations that influence the plot’s eventual outcome. You won’t want to skip the footnotes, either (and there are lots of them)—they provide lots of insight into Clarke’s world building. The first third or so of the book is particularly slow, because it is devoted to Mr. Norrell, who is a bit of a fuddy duddy, but once Strange enters the fray, along with his obsession with the Raven King, the plot picks up steam.
I would have read for another 800 pages (and I’m holding out hope for a sequel) because of Clarke’s fully-realized, inventive world, but this is not for someone who’s looking for a quick read. You have to be patient with this book, but the payoff is incredible.