HTBR: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. NorrellFor some time now, this title has been staring at me from the book shelf at my local book store. The title and cover always drew my eye, but the sheer size of the volume has kept me from picking it up. That is until now.

As with my previous Halfway Through Book Reviews, I’m currently midway between covers. For this particular novel, midway is still longer than most of the books I’ve read of late. So let’s get to it.

Susanna Clarke’s novel is set in the early nineteenth century. Napoleon is warring in Europe, Great Brittain is doing it’s best to thwart him, and magic has long since gone out of practice. There are still magicians in Europe, but only theoretical.

Enter Mr. Norrell. He claims to be the only Practical Magician and wishes to rid England of all Theoretical Magicians, confiscating all of their books on magic in the process. He wants to bring English Magic back, but wants to be the sole authority on it. While his justifications may appear sound at the surface, his inner reasons seem quite different.

Mr. Norrell’s fame and notoriety advance as Jonathan Strange takes the stage. Jonathan has a natural talent to perform magic and has done so with little assistance. He convinces Mr. Norrell to take him on as a student and thus begins their arrangement.

Together they help stop Napoleon and become national celebrities. Eventually the two magicians’ differing philosophies cause them to part ways and continually undermine each other’s personal undertakings.

Norrell and Strange are not the only characters followed in this tome. The Gentleman with the Thistle-down Hair (who as halfway through isn’t named) is a fairy originally conjured by Norrell. The Gentleman, along with his recently acquired good friend Stephen, gives us a view of the land of fairy throughout the novel.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell reads like a scholarly text. The book is littered with footnotes, ranging from simple book citations to long oral recitations which are only briefly mentioned in the text. Please don’t let this detour you. Clarke utilizes this style to create stories within a story, and each tangent is so wonderfully told, I can’t complain.

The only criticism I might have has to do with the actual magic in Clarke’s novel. I don’t think she clearly defines the rules to performing magic. I’m not sure if there must be an inherent quality to be a magician or if this can be taught to anyone. I’m never quite sure of the limitations either. I would hazard a guess that it would be knowledge. I mean it seems that anything could be accomplished with magic as long as you knew how to do it.

Others might complain about the pacing of the book. It is slow and leisurely to be sure, but I find the story intriguing enough, the characters vivid, and the prose to be solid. So by all accounts, I will continue through the second half. When I’m done, I’ll post an update to see if it paid off to finish.

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