NOTE: I didn't put the spoiler flag on this review because it technically doesn't give anything big away. Nevertheless it does come pretty close. So, if want to dive into the book completely clean you might consider moving on. You have been warned.
On with the review. First off, this is not Harry Potter for grown ups. I really hate it when people use that lazy comparison not only because it's completely stupid but because it isn't even remotely true.
With that off my chest, I can say that this is an engrossing and fascinating journey through a dark magical world of some strange characters. Add to that the fact that the writing is stunningly beautiful and it contains a good number of twists and turns and you've got the recipe for a cracklin' page turner.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell requires a LOT of patience. If you are looking for cheap action, mindless plots, and immediate gratification you are probably not going to be very happy with this tome. Weighing in at over 800 pages and nearly 34 pounds it is a true commitment if there ever was one, no question about it. In fact, the book itself was 10 years in the making, according to the author's website. However, if you can settle down and just go with the flow of the book -- and not fight it -- then you will be greatly rewarded in the end. Trust me.
The book takes place in the early 1800s, largely in England, Venice, with a side slice of Spain on the side. The sprawling story involves one Mr. Norrell, a highly skilled, wealthy recluse magician with a burning desire to be the sole practitioner of modern practical magic. He takes it upon himself to dedicate his life's work to decimating any and all other magicians he can through various means, most notably by buying up every tome of practical magic he can get his hands on. Remember, this is early 19th century England -- books are not easy to come by, good books on magic even less so.
When Norrell's abilities become known he is cajoled into moving to London where he becomes an overnight sensation by bringing the wife of a well-connected politician back to life, though dooming her in the process by selling part of her life to a faerie nutjob whose help he needed to perform said miracle. Norrell is the toast of the town and uses his considerable wealth and new network of powerful friends to monopolize modern day magic in England, the only place in the book we are made to believe has any to begin with.
A good 200 pages into the book we are introduced to Jonathan Strange, a neutral personality who has never settled on a profession for long and, in what seems like a random impulsive decision, chooses one day to pursue magic as a vocation. As luck would have it he eventually crosses paths with Norrell who -- against all sensible predictions -- takes Strange on as a pupil and carefully directs his learning through a less daring subset of his precious magic books.
The rest of the book takes us through their odd relationship, the war with Napoleon, and eventually to a showdown between the magicians in the end. There are, of course, numerous escapades and side stories along the way that make the read that much more enjoyable. The pace is leisurely at times but never seems to drag too much.
I have a few gripes, of course. With this large a book it would be hard not to but it's worth emphasizing that these pithy little criticisms are vastly outweighed by the overall boldness of the book as a whole. First off, the magic seems too...easy. Despite this, and paradoxically so, it is only practiced by essentially two people throughout the book. This is explained away by the author in so much as it is books of practical magic that allow people to perform magic. Nowhere is there a connection with talent and magic; to be good you have to be in the right place at the right time and have access to these very rare books (nearly all of which are hoarded and kept hidden from everyone by Mr. Norrell). An entire gaggle of theoretical magicians were duped by Norrell early in the book into not practicing again and, apart from appearances from two of them as minor characters later on, never surface again for the remainder of the book.
I was a little put off at times at how "God-like" Jonathan Strange, Mr. Norrell's apprentice, could be in particular. In some of the [poorly rendered] battles with the French his magic seemed limitless. All he had to do was just think of anything he wanted, no matter how ludicrous or unbelievable, and voila it would happen. Giant hands emerging from the ground to take down horse and rider? No problem! Move entire cities across the Atlantic to avoid the enemy? I'm on it! Create entire networks of temporary roads to grant the army a more hasty pursuit? Got it! The examples go on and on. I would have felt a little more interested in the magic if it was actually a struggle to perform and if the bag of tricks Norrell or Strange had actually had limits.
Another gripe of the novel was the build-up of the Raven King. He was painted from the outset as this larger than life king of unimaginable powers, from where all 'modern' magic sprung. He was revered and struck terror into many people's hearts, even after all these years of his vanishing. It was somewhat of a letdown, in the end, when he finally does appear, though for purposes of not spoiling if for you, should you read the book, I digress.
Lastly, the faeries are somewhat of a mystery. We are told that they have their own kingdom and are quite powerful yet...we only meet one. The background of the faeries and what their motivation is remains completely vacant for the whole story. The one nameless lunatic faery we do meet needs only to annoy practicing magicians who are gaining power, and to cast spells on attractive people so that he can call them to his faery ballroom every night to dance. Other than that we don't really learn much more. Like why is this faery like this? What's his story? Where are the other faeries? He does play a role late in the story but it is almost anti-climactic.
I think Susanna Clarke is a very gifted writer. This being her first published novel makes it even more impressive. The fact that she cut her teeth in the literary world as an editor is somewhat odd, given the massive size of this volume -- it might not have been a bad idea to put some passages "under the knife" with the benefit of another keen editor's eye. Nevertheless I don't feel that some of the more bloated chapters robbed me of my time. I was drawn in and it was only afterwards that I looked back on earlier chapters and recognized their irrelevance to the story.
To sum up, this is a real corker. Grab a copy and, if you're lucky enough to be drawn in, you will not readily put it down to come back to the real world. I, for one, will be reading the follow-up to this book (supposedly a loose continuation of the story) when it is released. Hopefully for our sake that's not 10 years away.
I think the book does have some forgivable problems. First off, it could have benefited from some good editing as it does tend to meander and ramble on at times. Next, there are also some obvious weaknesses in this world of magic that lead the reader to believe that Clarke didn't think some things fully through. Lastly, the origins of some of the antagonists are left far too mysterious and vague, to the detriment of the tale. I kept waiting to learn more about this in the story but as I approached the end I realized there wasn't going to be a good payoff on that front.
Nevertheless, the writing, as I said, is top notch and very impressive. I anxiously await the follow-up to the next installment as the slim collection of related short stories that followed this book left a lot to be desired.