I consider it a miracle in itself that I finished reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. After all, the book is almost 800 pages long (and since I listened to the audiobook, it was also over 30 hours long)! While it deals with magic and is set in an England where magic exists, this book is a tad more dry and descriptive than the page-turning Harry Potter series. Nevertheless, as I’ve mentioned before, a story set in a world just like ours except where magic is real has always been a fascinating setup to me. In this book, Clarke has made it so artificially-real that she has numerous footnotes throughout the book which cite references to historical texts, etc., all about the history of magic (and those footnotes are ironically the best part of the book!). When I saw the title and the book cover, I imagined that I was in for basically a kind of Downton Abbey but where people can perform supernatural acts. For the most part, that’s kind of accurate, except I did not expect how mundane a lot of it would be. Whenever it’s a story about magic, one expects a struggle of good vs. evil (and though many times characters are referred to as “evil”, Lord Voldemort would have cupped his pale hand to cover a yawn at their kind of “evil”). Also, no matter how mundanely it begins, one expects the struggle to grow in scale to something more epic than this one did (again, over the course of 800 pages, the scope of the story did expand from England to Spain and Italy, and some powerful spells were cast, but fireworks were few and far between). The secret to enjoying this book (and I definitely did that) is to realize that it’s not that kind of a novel.
This is something I should have realized early on after meeting one of the protagonists, Mr. Norrell. The first big scene has him making a wager with a society of English magicians (who were the kind of magicians who studied magic in academic books, but never performed any spells) that if he could successfully do real magic, they would quit being “magicians” altogether. It turns out that Mr. Norrell was a petty man and liked to horde all things of truly magical value (which essentially meant books of magic). As the only practicing magician, Norrell eventually started to use his abilities for more than just showing off. He started to work for the government. I know, not the most thrilling development, but it’s probably more realistic to what would happen if magic had been real in England. Norrell eventually starts a one-man crusade against all others claiming to be magicians until he meets someone else who is truly capable of magic — Jonathan Strange. Strange becomes a pupil of the renowned Mr. Norrell, but eventually student and teacher part ways and become rivals. Their conflict comes to a dramatic climax but not for hundreds of pages — pages in which not that much really happens.
The other major element of storyline is all precipitated from a deal made by Norrell with a fairy known only as The Man with the Thistledown Hair. From that deal, all kinds of unforeseen (and frankly not very logical) consequences occur. That whole part of the story bothered me quite a bit, actually. The fairy’s actions always seemed way out of proportion and his motivations were almost random and nonsensical. He adores a couple of the female characters and so he brings them every night to a magical ball at his castle (which eventually feels like a curse to them as they have no choice but to go with him). He takes a liking to one of the servants and decides to give him any wish, as well as trying to make him king. Then he fears/hates Strange and decides to curse him by keeping him in eternal night. Huh? I guess he’s meant to be a classic trickster character, but to me he was just very frustrating.
While it wasn’t the plot or even the characterization in the foreground that made this book stand out, it was the background and context. In the footnotes and other references, it’s clear that Clarke has fabricated an entire centuries-long history of English magic to such detail that the references and citations to fictional texts seem completely real. She’s created generations of magicians (“aureate or golden age” magicians being the most powerful) with backstories on their prominent members. She’s outlined how magic developed from the faerie to be learned by the aureates and other generations of magicians. She’s named spells and books and authors and even publishers to fill in the gaps of a fictional history. All that amazing background is such a wonderful tapestry and yet the best part is that she created a figure known as The Raven King (who was absolutely fascinating to me, and I wish there had been a spinoff novel about his story). John Uskglass was a human child stolen away to Faerie where he was fostered by the fairy king and learned magic. He eventually became king of Faerie as well as conquering Northern England. He supposedly brought magic to England, and all true English magic traces its origins back to the Raven King. While he was not an actual character in this novel, he was repeatedly mentioned and his influence was such a big part of the novel that he really could be considered one. In the end, it’s rare to find a novel where the background, context, essentially the appendix, plays such a big part in what makes the book a good read. I guess if the book had been a straight history of magic in England, it might have come across as dull and pointless. However, weave an imaginary history into this narrative about two proper, English magicians over the years, and the book becomes a unique, interesting, and enjoyable blend — worth the 800 page journey. (BTW, I can’t wait for the BBC adaptation!) (4 out of 5)