Book Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Amazon suggested this novel because of my interest in Harry Potter. However, it's important to know that this isn't Young Adult literature. It's grown up, even though it's about magic. By grown up, I don't mean it's full of sex and violence, but I do mean it's over 800 dense pages long, so the author takes her time to develop the characters and explain the setting. The magic in the book is darker and less controllable. There are parts in the book that are downright creepy and unsettling, and the final resolution isn't tied up as pretty as Harry Potter.
In addition, there aren't any characters that I fell in love with. Now that statement may be enough to send people running, so let me explain: It's not that the characters weren't interesting or I didn't get involved in what was going to happen to them. It's just that they're not these great, lovable characters. There is no Harry or Frodo here. Mr Norrell is an old man who thinks he is IT concerning magic. He's the worst combination of arrogance and wimpiness. He wants to bring magic back to England, but he does so on his terms, sometimes manipulating situations and people to do so. Jonathan Strange is Norrell's opposite, but although he is younger, smoother, and bolder, he too can be tricky.
So why is this book a good read?
First, it has an intricate plot. Characters which at first seem insignificant end up coming back into the picture with a key purpose hundreds of pages later. A tiny detail about them (like blue writing on one magician's skin) leaves us wanting to know more. Conflicts feel piled on top of each other, but by the end, we see they were tied together. Although Norrell may think he is the man determining the fate of magic in England, we find that there was a grand plan all along, and he and Strange are just a part of it.
Second, the magic is interesting. At times, it is also unsettling, but I think that's what makes this such a great element to her work. We're not always sure what to think of the magician or the magic. There is talk of "dark magic" in the book, but it isn't as black and white as we want it to be. Fairies can be good or bad, the Raven King--the old great magician-king in England from long ago--is loved and feared. Norrell prides himself on making good magical decisions, and yet his magic brings one of the darker characters (an un-named fairy) into the story. Magic is real and part of their world (Strange moves entire cities and people just accept it as normal), and yet at times, we recognize with the characters that something unnatural is taking place.
Third, the writing is good and solid. From the first page, I knew that I could read the novel because Clarke is a great writer. She's dry and clever, while at the same time able to write really beautiful passages. It's true that some parts were tedious for me to read, but I'll take that over bad writing any day. She cleverly kept me interested, so I worked through (okay, sometimes skimmed) certain passages so I could know what was going to become of England, of magic, of the books, of Norrell, of Strange, of Lady Pole, of John Uskglass...
There are a lot of thoughtful thematic ideas that come up in the novel: the role of books and knowledge, how one choice can bring a multitude of consequences, the strength (and perceived weakness) of women, the tension between reason and madness (hello, King Lear), the clash between classes, the wise fool, the kingly servant, the contrast between appearance and reality, the willingness to trust what you can't see. Mirrors, ravens, the forest, and colors are a few motifs to keep the symbol-lover interested.
Four stars, definitely worth the slightly longer read!