Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

I recently finished Susanna Clarke’s massive novel about two magicians (the fantastical, spell-casting type) who bring their craft back to England in the early nineteenth century.

I’m honestly not having the easiest time articulating a strong opinion, but that’s not because I found it a mundane read. On the contrary, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. It’s written like a piece of English literature from the 1800s despite the fact that it’s less than ten years old, with spectacular occurrences described matter-of-factly and a huge emphasis on what exactly it means to be English.

The magic doesn’t follow too many hard and fast rules, with a much greater emphasis on the thematic underpinnings of the fantastic than the logic behind exactly what is and what isn’t possible.

The world, though, is very well-established, with a gradually explored alternate history in which a child called the Raven King built a magical empire in northern England which he ruled for centuries before disappearing, slowly taking the magic with him.

Now two men, the arrogant, timid Norrell and the younger, romantic Strange, use their own magical prowess (Norrell’s developed through decades of careful study and Strange’s manifested through innate talent) in service of their country.

The relationship between the two men is, naturally, the novel’s focus, so to say it starts off slowly is an understatement considering Strange doesn’t show up for a few hundred pages. But when he does, things get more interesting, and gradually build to a very satisfying final hundred or so pages.

The exploration of reason and madness as related through the behavior of the totally amoral fair folk, here represented by the enigmatic gentleman with the thistle-down hair, is another highlight.

If this sounds like your kind of thing, you definitely won’t be disappointed. It’s an investment, but you certainly won’t regret it.

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