Friday, August 31, 2007

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke

The Basics: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke, 2004, 1006 pages, paperback

How I found it: Random browsing in Chapters. I believe I picked it up because it sounded interesting and it was a best seller.

What's it about?: This book is historical fiction (or fictionalized history?) and deals with the return of magic to England in the 1800s. The protagonists are Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, two magicians who go from being unknown and known, to master and pupil, to sworn enemies, to... whatever it is they are the end of the book. The book is fairly long and deals with the minutia of the lives of these magicians. In addition to being about magic, this book deals with the historical events in England at the time, such as the Napoleonic wars. This novel is a bit Austen or Bronte-esque in that it is obsessed with the social engagements and standing of each of its characters.

Did I like it?: This book drove me crazy. It took me a very long time to read it - not only because the book itself is long, but because for great portions of it I was uninterested in it. The book is 1006 pages long and it is the author's first novel. She could have benefited greatly from a better editor. The book could have been perhaps a third of the length and still told the same story. Clarke seemed determined to make the reader feel as if they were reading a historical book so she added numerous and mostly irrelevant footnotes and some "ye olde english" spellings. This just drove me crazy. Large portions of the plot could have been summarized in a chapter or two, but instead they drag on for hundreds of pages. The characters of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are not particularly likable or relatable, and the author's treatment of them leaves the reader wondering who we are supposed to root for - who is the hero and who is the villian? Overall, I was disappointed with this book and did not really enjoy reading it. Above all, I found it annoying on many levels.

Will you like it?: If you are a fan of the fantasy genre (which I am not), you may like this book. However, there are not enough battles or mystical creatures to satisfy a Lord of the Rings fan and there is too much discussion of the types of ball gowns worn and which government official has invited the magicians for tea. Apparently this book is a New York Times bestseller, so there must be lots of people out there who liked it. Sorry to say, I can't figure out who they might possibly be.

But don't take my word for it: The usual editorial and reader reviews from Amazon, a glowing review from the Washington Post, one from SF Site, another from Salon, one from, and one from Strange Horizons.