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the complete review - fiction
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
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A- : unassuming, well-crafted, and very old-fashioned entertainment
See our review for fuller assessment.
|Christian Science Monitor
||Charles Shaar Murray
|The NY Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|The New Yorker
|San Francisco Chronicle
|The Village Voice
|The Washington Post
Not quite a consensus, but many enthralled
From the Reviews:
- "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is no Harry Potter knockoff. It's altogether original -- far closer to Dickens than Rowling. In fact, I'm so in love with Susanna Clarke's debut novel that I must have been beaned on the head with a golden snitch. (...) She's as deft at describing the flutter of gossip at a dinner party in London as she is at describing a gown covered in small shrieking mouths in Fairyland." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor
- "Susanna Clarke's magic is above all, though, a peculiarly English phenomenon, a kind of apothecary's tincture of a national eccentricity out of which emerges a host of vivid characters from every walk of early 19th-century life" - Matthew Alexander, Daily Telegraph
- "(I)s the book any good ? It is, but only in parts. (...) By all means, read the book that everyone will be talking about this winter, but don't worry if you don't get through it. Not everyone will." - The Economist
- "(I)mmense, intelligent, inventive, arid, and exhausting (.....) Clarke is a restrained and witty writer with an arch and eminently readable style. But it's not a style built to sustain a big, sweeping narrative like the one she's produced. Hammier, sloppier, more passionate prose would have done a better job on this humongous canvas." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly
- "But overall this large, loquacious book has nothing much to say, the plot creaks frightfully in many places and the pace dawdles. New characters are constantly being added, even near the end, and most of them struggle to earn their narrative keep. (...) The most worrying weakness, though, is the book's low emotional temperature." - Michel Faber, The Guardian
- "Clarke's narrative is a studious pastiche of leisurely, discursive 19th-century prose, complete with archaic spellings (...) and a copious use of faux-pedantic footnotes. The result is a sort of Jane Austen Powers. (...) If the book ends up as engaging rather than riveting, cosy rather rather than visceral, that represents a distinguishing mark of its sub-genre as opposed to a flaw in the author's craftsmanship." - Charles Shaar Murray, The Independent
- "This, in other words, is a tale of magic such as might have been written by the young Jane Austen -- or, perhaps, by the young Mrs Radcliffe, whose Gothic imagination and exuberant delicacy of style set the key. Herein lies both its originality and its dissonance. As pastiche, it is a good joke, though not one worthy of 800 pages. As fantasy, it is deplorable, given that it fails to embrace the essentially anarchic nature of such tales." - Amanda Craig, New Statesman
- "(T)hose who find enchantment in books about magicians will, by and large, be amazed at the elaborateness of what she has done. But this novel can be as fussy and poky as it is clever. It could have been improved by an editor with a magic wand. (...) Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been celebrated as an adult Harry Potter story, but it is more like a flatter and flabbier one." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times
- "A reader more distractible than I am might yawn for 300 pages running and still discover several book-length stretches to enjoy. I never yawned. Clarke's imagination is prodigious, her pacing is masterly and she knows how to employ dry humor in the service of majesty." - Gregory Maguire, The New York Times Book Review
- "(H)er attempt to graft a fantasy narrative onto such historical realities as the Battle of Waterloo is more often awkward than clever, and the period dialogue is simply twee. Worse, the tension between the forces of good and evil -- crucial in any magical tale -- is surprisingly slack; the arch-villain is a cartoonish fop whose petulant misdeeds lack menace." - The New Yorker
- "Clarke has evidently read deeply in medieval and subsequent fairy lore and has had an immense amount of fun with it. The footnotes are among the best things in the book, expositions of stories alluded to in the text, essays on fairies, bibliographic references to non-existent books, an implied deep-structure of alternative history. The invention from moment to moment is wonderful; the ships made of rain, the speaking statues. The wit and ingenuity expended on the most minor details is extraordinary. (...) For all its ingenuity and charm, this book is as insubstantial as fairy gold." - Jane Stevenson, The Observer
- "The first 200 pages or so are full of witty dialogue, cunning observations and intriguing footnotes, but it's not clear at first whether this book will be anything more than a lovingly crafted pastiche, an overly extended exercise in style and tone more to be admired than enjoyed. Patience is rewarded, however, and Clarke ultimately proves that her gargantuan story is one well worth telling." - Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle
- "It is a book for a favourite armchair, for readers in patched cardigans, with log fires and buttered muffins. (...) Above all, Clarke makes her magical story ridiculously engrossing. I only wish I could summon up a book as imaginatively stodgy in which to hibernate next winter." - Helen Brown, Sunday Telegraph
- "(A) masterpiece of the genre that rivals Tolkien.(...) Clarke is an extremely funny writer, which is rare in fantasy -- Rowling is sometimes goofy, but Clarke is genuinely witty. But what really sets Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell apart is its treatment of magic." - Lev Grossman, Time
- "(O)ld-fashioned sorcery in a chic, post-ironic package, so closely resembling actual literature that it has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. (...) I think it is far too long, and my fingers itched for a blue pencil on nearly every page. It’s frustrating, because the quantity often obscures real quality. Clarke’s writing has flashes of extraordinary power, and her imagination is sometimes sublime." - Kate Saunders, The Times
- "There is a particular pleasure in reading a superior example of a genre which can be taken as a manifesto for what the genre should be. (...) (I)t is also, in its eloquence, its use of telling detail, its biting wit and its sense of the transitoriness of life -- above all in its emotional and intellectual reach -- a strong rebuke to the pastel colours and sub-Hollywood theatrics of most genre fantasy and a reproach to the lack of ambition of much mainstream fiction." - Roz Kaveney, Times Literary Supplement
- "It is less a fantasy novel than a work of alternate history. As such, it is more cerebral than the Harry Potter novels and remains an adult pleasure. It takes 100 pages for Clarke to establish her milieu, but most readers, once enchanted, will remain under her spell until the very last page." - Edward Nawotka, USA Today
- "The book's major defect is that the narrative drive jostles disconcertingly with the novel's sherry-dry, Jane Austen tone. The result of this disjuncture is a weird stasis in the first 400 pages of the book. (...) But an entertaining story is so rare that anything short of a major crime is forgivable." - Grady Hendrix, The Village Voice
- "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is at heart a book about the present's relationship to the past. In its pages Clarke takes the accepted fabric of English culture and inserts just a single new thread: that during the Renaissance, magic actually worked. (...) What makes the novel so impressive, however, is Susanna Clarke's flair for pastiche and her astonishing explanatory footnotes." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
- "Clarke engages in a curious narrative strategy of continual deferral and delay (...) Clarke's prose is rich rather than spare (imagine the plush upholstery of Trollope, not the clean lines of Peacock), and her tendency to let even her digressions curl luxuriantly upon themselves has moved some reviewers to complain of the novel's length. Some careful trimming would certainly have helped the book (...) but Clarke is a writer of amplitude." - Gregory Feeley, Weekly Standard
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is set in England, in the early 19th century.
It is similar to, if not identical to the historic England of that time, the major difference being that this is a world in which there is a history of magic -- if little (at first) in that present day.
The practise of magic has declined, and left behind its Golden Age centuries earlier, with the Raven King -- "the greatest of them all -- the magician par excellence" -- now only a distant, near-mythical figure.
An alter-world, Faerie, is still commonly accepted as real, but seems almost entirely cut off from this world, with no magicians able to bridge it.
The two title-figures are introduced in entirely understated ways: the title promises them great prominence and ensures that the reader is aware that they will play central roles, but the first mention of Strange is in a footnote referring to one of his books, while the name Norrell is first mentioned parenthetically ("The other magician (whose name was Norrell)").
The first volume of this three-part novel is devoted to (and called): Mr Norrell.
He is a true magician, and has spent years in isolated studies, learning all he can from books.
His great ambition is to bring back magic to England -- but only true magic.
He has not patience for the charlatans and amateurs who claim to be magicians but are, at best, tricksters.
And, it seems (at least to him), no one but Norrell is qualified to practise true magic.
One of the first episodes in the book has Norrell prove his superiority -- and cause all but one of the local (York) magicians to give up their craft.
But he must go to the English capital, London, if he really wants to re-establish magic, and there he must prove himself again.
A bookish sort, with few social graces -- "considered the dullest man in Yorkshire" -- he's not very good even at helping himself, despite his (theoretical) abilities.
He's also not one to go around and show off with waves of the wand (little employed here in any case) and cheap tricks, and so has some difficulty in persuading people of his abilities, and of the potential use magic could be put to (such as aiding England in its fight against the French).
Fortunately, he has his "man of business", Childermass, and then some hangers-on in London who know exactly how to introduce him to society and see to it that his qualities are properly appreciated.
Norrell is an odd duck.
For one so eager to see magic flourish again he doesn't do much to help spread it.
Control is more important to him: he doesn't trust anyone else to treat magic properly, or expect anyone can understand it.
He makes a great effort to obtain and secrete all the books on magic -- the main source of magic left -- and is reluctant to pass on or share his knowledge.
He also has a somewhat unusual attitude about the whole thing:
The practice of magic is full of frustrations and disappointments, but the study is a continual delight.
Norrell is also much-opposed to the respect shown for John Uskglass, the legendary Raven King, whom he considers anything but an ideal and a danger to magic again finding its proper place.
Indeed, his efforts are focussed entirely on rebuilding magic without relying on that foundation.
Norrell is also wary of fairies, though in order to establish himself in London he does offer a sensational bit of magic managed only with the aid of one, leading to a bargain that has far-reaching consequences.
Bringing fairies into this world is fraught with danger:
In men reason is strong and magic is weak.
With fairies it is the other way round: magic comes very naturally to them, but by human standards they are barely sane.
Jonathan Strange only really appears on the scene well into the book.
He comes to magic almost by accident, but turns out to have a talent for it.
Astonishingly, even Norrell -- suspicious of and very ill-at-ease with this apparent pretender at first -- is won over and accepts him as an apprentice, willing to teach him at least some of what he knows.
They are very different souls, and never fully trust one another, but each stands to gain from their working together, and theirs is a successful and much-relied upon partnership.
They accomplish some remarkable things, especially regarding military matters -- it is the time of the Napoleonic wars and magic is of great help in both Portugal and then in the conflicts culminating at Waterloo.
Eventually, however, there is a parting of the ways: Strange strikes out on his own, despite not having learnt everything from Norrell's books he might have.
Theirs is not the only magic happening, though much of the rest remains relatively limited, affecting only a few people.
Slowly, however, it comes to the fore.
Strange is asked to try using magic on the mad king, George III, and it is an encounter that brings him closer than he'd like to other magical occurrences.
And there are other mysteries, of people and events that are barely recollected (and remain unrecountable), of a man whose name no one ever recalls.
The momentum in the novel gathers relatively slowly, but it builds and builds.
Strange loses his wife, Norrell subverts Strange's much-anticipated book on The History and Practice of English Magic, and the evidence mounts that:
All of John Uskglass's old alliances are still in place.
Magic does indeed return to England, but Norrell's attempts to control and guide it fail.
What's unleashed is far more complicated, and though the magicians Norrell and Strange can manage it in some small (but very significant) ways an incredible transformation of this world takes place -- and though this is a complete work in itself, it clearly lays the groundwork for a sequel.
What's perhaps most remarkable about Clarke's novel is how controlled it is.
The writing -- like the characters -- avoids the sensational.
And yet there is much that is sensational here: some of the magic is spectacular (cities and roads are moved great distances, for example).
It's not taken for granted, but is accepted as merely another manifestation of life.
When Strange goes to Portugal to help fight the French he's met not so much with suspicion as indifference, and only when he shows that magic might be useful is he welcomed -- but then employed (and treated) no differently than the rest of the supporting military cast.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is very English (as are its characters), a novel whose every aspect imitates the tone of the time.
It could pass for a 19th century novel, its scope and approach (and delicacy) far closer to the books of that time than those of ours.
It's very old-fashioned -- which isn't entirely a bad thing: Clarke writes very well (the book is exceptionally well-crafted, down to each sentence), and so it reads like a fine Wilkie Collins or Ann Radcliffe novel (though she avoids being anywhere near as melodramatic).
It's a very agreeable book: there's pleasure in the expert writing, some intriguing characters and occurrences, and the story does meander interestingly forward.
It does move rather slowly and fuzzily: there's relatively little background offered, and, with few exceptions, little character development.
Some of the characters find themselves in a sort of fog (and are unable to communicate many of their experiences), and that's how many more appear to the reader: distinct, but ungraspable, entities which seem placed here more to serve a purpose than real human figures.
It is deliberately paced, and in that way again like a 19th century book, a novel for long evenings in front of fireplace.
It is enjoyable -- it is a very good book -- but it is not entirely enthralling.
This magical world is cleverly constructed and presented (with useful footnotes offering more insight) and several of the characters (including Norrell and Strange) are intriguing -- and the book does build quite impressively (if very slowly) to dramatic events -- but there's not quite enough here to completely win the reader over.
The book's greatest weakness is its distance: it keeps the reader at arm's length, and resolutely refuses to allow any glimpses not only of intimacy but of almost any emotional human interaction.
Everyone behaves terribly decorously (with a few vicious or underhanded exceptions), which is all well and good, but modern readers might no longer be satisfied with only seeing what largely amounts to the public face of characters: for far too much of this book the truly human side is only obliquely presented, or missing entirely.
A very accomplished work, creating an interesting universe (and a well-conceived and -developed world of magic), and an enjoyable read.
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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell:
Other books by Susanna Clarke under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
British author Susanna Clarke was born in 1959.
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© 2004-2021 the complete review
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