e’d watched the first few episodes of the miniseries lifted from this book and petered out – just didn’t hold us. And then a person I know at work borrowed a copy of this book and tried to get through it, only to die on the white burning pages about halfway through. And when I’d agreed to read it, and when it was handed to me (with both hands, all 782 pages of it (why do people loan me such massive books?)), I knew I had my work cut out for me.
But, actually, not bad.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a book about an England slightly different from ours, one that looks like ours but one that was once ruled by a magical Northern King, one who communicated with fairies and whose armies couldn’t be stopped. But that was then; since that time, over the long centuries, magicians have come and gone, little more than custodians of magic. Each did his research, trying to figure how magic worked, and each wrote his findings in various little books, books that contained as much truth as fictions and which have eventually (through shrewd efforts) have been amassed by fussy Mr. Norrell, a northern landowner and would-be restorer of the art of English magic (though, truthfully, his methods appear to focus on maintaining a monopoly of same such for himself).
And enter Jonathan Strange, a dreamy rudderless fellow of means who needs to pick something to occupy himself. Unsuited for anything else, he turns to magic and becomes Mr. Norrell’s apprentice. Yet as the two men study together they begin to chafe. Strange wants magic open and useful and free, Norrell wants control and restrictions and limitations. Finally, if only to get rid of the bothersome youth, Norrell has Strange packed off to the Peninsula, to assist Wellington against the French (and, in a backfiring of efforts, brings magic even more into prominence).
But a book this size needs more than one plot line. There is the young woman whose life Norrell saved, bringing her back from the dead through a bargain with a fairie at the cost of her fingertip. And then there is the black servant that same fairie has captivated, dragging the two down (and others, as we eventually learn) to his nightly balls of tedium and weariness. Yet the main conflict, Strange vs. Norrell, simmers with plots and little digs and such forth. All of these plot lines heat up towards a conclusion which is rich in doubt and colorful in drama.
And not, I suspect, resolved as you would imagine.
Overall, I liked the book. Ms. Clarke, the author, added in many period spellings of words, her story structured in form and content like a Defoe novel. The characters are reasonably strong to carry their plot loads, there is the right about of mystery, a dash of period color, and the odd feeling that we should know how magic works and yet we don’t, not quite. I rather enjoyed it even as I labored to kill it off late Sunday (early Monday). Great read.
So, yes, if you are an advanced reader (or at least a patent one) you should look towards this. As always, better than the movie. Have a look!