Friday, January 18, 2008

Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
Recommended Age: 15+

A Time Magazine review quoted on the cover of this book likens it, very aptly, to a meeting of Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkien. Chiefly set in Regency England, it affects the style and even spelling quirks of the early 19th century so convincingly that one could easily take the author for a contemporary of Dickens. First-time novelist Susanna Clarke combines gentle satire of the delicate manners of that age, yearning for the magic of even earlier times, and a crystal-clear syntax that does not wear out the brain or the eyes with endless sentences like this one.

It was, in fact, very exciting to read. Though the plot unfolds over some 10 years (and 800 pages), it does not seem to move slowly. Certain chapters would make captivating, stand-alone stories, and the last half of the book gathers momentum toward a climax of shattering power. At times it is suspenseful, shocking, humorous, tragic, romantic, and chilling. At least once I became so angry at some of the characters that I started swearing at them out loud. Another time I found myself pounding on my desk and yelling, “Yeah!”

So who in the world are Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell? They are the first two practicing magicians in England since the “Silver Age” of magic, hundreds of years before. They live in a version of history closely allied to the real world, up to a certain point. Napoleon, Wellington, George III, Lord Byron, and many other contemporary figures are here, mostly unchanged. But the England of this history was once split into two kingdoms; the northern half was ruled for 300 years by the Raven King, a powerful magician who consorted with fairies, angels, and demons.

The Raven King, also known as John Uskglass, is still out there somewhere, and his return is expected. Since he went away into Faerie, the practice of magic has declined until only one man claims to be more than a theoretical magician: Mr. Gilbert Norrell of Yorkshire. Norrell is very little like your idea of the “greatest magician of the age.” He is a crabbed, awkward, small man who fusses about his library, who destroys other magicians as a hobby, and who is determined to put magic on a modern, scientific footing.

Jonathan Strange is his one student: a handsome, active, outgoing young man who is both disciple and rival to Mr. Norrell. The contrast between them could not be greater; yet Strange is also a surprising magician – happily married, socially adept, and creative. He has to be creative, because Mr. Norrell is so stingy with his books that Strange has no other way of learning than to invent. And invent he does, achieving fame as Lord Wellington’s military magician from Lisbon to Waterloo.

But a certain fairy gentleman threatens to bring tragedy on both men. Of all people, it is Norrell – opponent of all dealings with the fairy realm – who summons this gentleman. So begins a trail of trials that could destroy both magicians. While master and student become increasingly estranged from each other, both of them – and the future of English magic – are headed toward freakish danger.

This story has much to appeal to a grown-up Harry Potter fan. It’s a thick, richly detailed book that you can’t put down. It’s full of colorful characters – some loveable, some hateable – and gosh-wow magic tricks. It even has magic that simply couldn’t be done in Harry’s world; and magic that shouldn’t be done either. It has horrors and gruesome surprises that are definitely not for the faint of heart; but it also has a hero you care about, even when he’s not particularly well-behaved. As for the villains, you find yourself hating most of them with a very personal hatred, yet pitying them later. It’s all marvelously done.

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