Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury, 2004, 782 pages, C$29.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7475-7411-1

It’s not every day that a fantasy novel by a first-time author ends up on the best-seller lists and the Hugo Award ballot. It’s ever rarer to see mainstream critics falling over themselves in praising the book and find out that the first-time writer in question is familiar with the core fantasy genre. But here’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a big fat book that makes all of the above come true.

The first obvious thing about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, even before cracking open the pages of the book, is that it’s meant to be a throwback to another time. Save for the hefty price, the cover design is deliberately unrefined, suggesting a time where dust jackets were actually meant to protect against dust, not act as marketing instruments. And, whaddaya know, the book is about another time: An alternate early-nineteenth century England in which magic returns after a much-discussed absence. Shy and reclusive magician Mr. Norrell emerges as the nation’s preeminent magician. He’s not alone, though. Despite Norrell’s best efforts at discouraging other magicians, he is soon joined by another gifted wizard named Jonathan Strange. Given their opposite temperaments, the two will share a complex relationship…

There is a lot to like and admire in this massive fantasy novel. The flagrant Englishness of the book is one of them; the narrator of the story quickly becomes a character in her own right, tut-tutting events she finds distasteful and reminding the readers of the proper way to act as proud Englishmen. The style is accordingly tweaked, giving the impression that we’re reading something that may conceivably have been written back then. Some of the spelling is altered in consequence (a quirk that is sure to annoy some readers) and the narration takes on a meandering, discursive quality that is not without considerable charm.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell also does well with its story, characters and atmosphere. If nothing else, Clarke proves to be impressively ambitious with this first novel: Not simply happy to create a historical portrait of England slightly altered to accommodate magic, but she sends her characters in the middle of the Napoleonic wars and alters (not very much) the course of history. The completeness of her vision is impressive: The narrative is studded with lengthy footnotes (some extending over multiple pages) that, taken together, add an extra layer of depth to the world of the novel. References to fake works discussing the history of English magic are interspersed with richly-imagined side anecdotes and commentary, putting the novel itself in the middle of a (fictional) mini-continuum of English literature.

Techno-geeks are even liable to see a Microsoft/Open Source parable in the way Norrell and Strange each consider magic: One wants to buy off all competitors, close the spells to neophytes and keep everything firmly under his control, whereas the other wants magic to be used as widely, as openly and as freely as possible. Hmm…

Take all of the above together, and it’s difficult not to be impressed by Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It’s big, it’s bold and it’s unusual.

However, since there is always a however

For readers used to a snappier pace (and I suspect that the usual fantasy-reading target audience is more tolerant about these things), the book eventually takes its toll. As the narrative advances, the initial charm of the first few hundred pages wears off, and before the reader knows it, he’s stuck on page 550 with too much energy invested to quit, yet still a discouraging number of pages to go before the end. It doesn’t help that some subplots never take off despite their importance to the plot. The Stephen Black passages, for instance, never gel into something interesting despite a promising start. Every page spent away from the two titular characters seems like a forced digression.

This being said, few 800+ pages books are likely to escape the charge of being too long. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell does a better job than most at staving off the inevitable exasperation. It even manages something even stranger: Sell millions of copies, enrapture critics around the world and deserves every bit of its success. Well done… but please, no sequel.

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