By Greg Hardin
Sometimes the first published novel by an author will make you want to throw up, ram your head against a wall, and go cry in a corner for a few days. And sometimes it’s not because the novel is bad. I tried to suggest to a new book group that our inaugural book be Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but when my friends saw the 300,000+ word count, they balked. I read it anyway.
Neil Gaiman said it was, "unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years." Now, that comment is a little out of context, but I don’t care. I’m going to hold him to the outrageous statement. Whether or not he’s right, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is an incredibly unique and well-written book that should be on everyone’s summer or fall reading list. And it won the Hugo Award in 2005. So, there’s that.
Now, it might be strange that I am reviewing a book that’s been out for over 7 years, but what I’ve discovered is most of my friends, who like well-written books of a fantastic nature, have never heard of this particular tome. Sad. I’d like to rectify that.
Almost an alternative history book, rather than a fantasy novel, Clarke’s first novel takes place in pre-Victorian England. That’s the early 19th century for you Philistines. The wording and style reads like a Dickens novel or something by Jane Austen. (I almost felt at times like I was reading Pride and Prejudice and Magick.) Clarke presupposes that there was a long tradition of magic used in England, mostly centered on mystical figure called, The Raven King, who is kind of like King Arthur and Merlin combined. The Raven King has long since disappeared, and his disciples have also passed away or vanished. In fact, practical magic users have basically gone extinct in England. All that is left are theoretical magicians. Being a theoretical magician is viewed as a perfectly acceptable profession for a gentleman and whole magician societies exist, all ignoring the painful reality that they cannot do any of the magic they discuss so much. It’s delightful when not one but two new practical magicians appear on the scene and that is the main story: What happens in England when magic comes back? It puts a whole new spin on the Napoleonic wars, for one thing. And it’s just pure fun. The characters are dynamic and well crafted. The plot is complex but woven together with an ease that makes it simple to keep track of everyone and every event.
It’s a long book, but it won’t feel like it. Or maybe it will, but you will be happy it’s so long. As a plus, Clarke sprinkles hundreds of footnotes into the material, giving a broader background on the magical history of England and including several expository short stories. If you like historical novels, if you like alternate histories, if you like really good fantasy, read this book. It is technically very well written, and creatively: a masterpiece.