Reviews: Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange and the BBC Series

One thing I've wondered since reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was who exactly Susanna Clarke had in mind as a target audience. Released during the heights of the Harry Potter franchise, you'd think there might have been a young adult market. But the extremely languous pace, Byzantinian language and sheer size of the damn book should scare any young reader off. Meanwhile, the audience known to like their Dickens and Austen aren't exactly known for their fondness of fantasy. Clarke's book was a gamble to find some kind of nerdy inbetweener audience, and I'm impressed that one was discovered; indeed, one big enough to warrant a 7 part BBC drama.

The drama does a lot of shuffling to bring some variety to the story telling. Whereas in the book, nearly the entire first half was devoted to establishing Norrell's rise to fame (complete with endless footnotes and digressions) before even mentioning Jonathan Strange, the series introduces both characters from the get go. And removes any hint of the footnotes. Whilst I think the time shuffling and alternating narrative was a vital concession for television, I miss the constant footnotes - they did an important job of fleshing out the setting, and of creating a dry, academic, orderly tone to much of the story. Meanwhile, the series occasionally struggles to find its own tone, mixing the apologetic smirks and hi-jinks of Strange with a much darker horror element of its amoral, ruthless fairy race.

Strange and Norrell is ultimately a character driven story, led by two diametrically opposed protagonists - the mousy, highly strung Norrell and the charming, reckless Strange. Both play their roles well, though towards the finale there is a bit of extravagant shouting and scenery chewing. The supporting cast are all excellent too, and the favourite has to be The Gentleman; an arrogant Fairy King who is utterly devoid of self-awareness.

At only 7 episodes, it is a fun diversion whilst it lasted and I wished there was more. You don't need to have read the book to understand or enjoy the show, but I would recommend you read it anyway because it is that good. You may need to have a couple of weeks spare for that though.

Stark Raving Brilliant, But Not For Everyone

First, I should say that I think that the book is absolutely brilliant. The world is brilliantly rendered, the narration is dryly hilarious, the characters are very human and the plot is exceptional. However. I understand that is the sort of book that you have to click with. If you are one of the fortunate people who slips into the story and can barely put it down, you will love it. If you try and force yourself to read it, you will hate it.

The book itself is a lengthy and well crafted story about how The Magic Comes Back to an England in the early 19th century that has long since been bereft of true magic. The greatest magician of them all, the apparently immortal Raven King, disappeared nearly four hundred years before, after a three hundred year reign, and magically swiftly went into an apparently terminal decline.

Enter Mr Gilbert Norrell, the last practical magician left in England, on a mission to restore English magic. But there's a small problem. Norrell is a small, nervous, asocial and paranoid man, who doesn't satisfy the expectations that a magician be Tall, Dark and Snarky, and swiftly falls prey to the manipulations of Dirty Coward Christopher Drawlight and John Lascelles, with only the mysterious John Childermass, his servant, who appears to have some prophetic abilities of his own, as a tempering influence.

Then comes Jonathan Strange, a wilder, more classically magical figure, being at one point a bigger Byronic Hero than Byron himself, to the point where the other man is taking notes, who becomes Norrell's apprentice and, later, his rival.

The story explores the rivalry between the two, with Norrell's fussy, scientific and logical approach to magic compared to Strange's wilder, more mystical approach (both have a point - Strange is the one to reignite English magic with his insight through insanity but Exact Words are a very key point in the final act of the story) and their progression through the intrigues of the day.

And throughout, their story is mirrored by the story of Deuteragonist Stephen Black, a black butler to minor character Sir Walter Pole, who goes through a number of trials and tribulations at the hands of a Faerie only ever referred to as 'the gentleman', who develops a particular hatred for both Strange and Norrell.

And the Raven King casts a shadow over it all...

Brilliant but doesn't try to be Accessable

On the back of my copy, there's a review by Gaimen which calls this the greatest English language "fantastic" novel in the last 70 years. This is perhaps strong praise but I would certainly call it one of the better contemporary reads. It is, however, aimed very much at academics;

In other reviews, the characters are called unsympathetic, which couldn't be farther from the truth from my point of view. The book opts to make the two magicians into eccentic scholars; never dry academics or wild romantics but instead a very human combination of the two. Both of them represent the kind of scholarly personalities of the time which exist to a degree even today, they may remind you vaguely of teachers or historical thinkers [the inclusion of Byron was helped show the contrast here]. Both are deeply flawed and consumed by research in their own way and their flaws aren't glorified or glossed over, giving the feel of a rounded personality.

However, this does not come out readily and the characters do not become apparent foils until later. My view was one that the book mocked a little as I constantly expected wilder magicians if only to serve as foils to the scholarly ones; the reclusive Norrell to the theoretical magicians then Strange to Norrell. These characters are different but the deeper differences do not come out readily; this makes for more nuanced characters but a less exciting beginning.

The style itself is after Jane Austen whom I was never fond of, but the surreal premise of the book makes it read as a parody-pastiche which is pleasant for both fans and detractors. The attitudes of the time are mocked without venturing too far from character and though a couple remarks in the last volume over did it a little, I usually found myself laughing. The lemoniness of the narrator does make me feel like this piece is less timeless for it but they added to the experience for me.

The book is dense and nuanced, written as a pastiche of Jane Austin with numerous historical references about complicated and flawed characters that are ultimately just two quarreling academics in a field no one else understands. It's clear that this book isn't intended as a common audience book in the same way as Harry Potter but if this review sounds positive to you, then it is probably going to be up there with Tolkien for your favourite Fantasy reads.

Not for Everyone

I'm not sure what caused me to like this book so much in the first place, but I did. Maybe I was drawn in by the portrayal of magicians as fusty old historians. I stayed for the dry humor and the wonderful depiction of fairies (aka, the original one).

However, I can easily see the complaints that the other reviews pointed out in the book. It's written in a sort of pseudo-period style, although it's nowhere near as difficult to read as actual works from the age. It's often difficult to see where the plot is going, and several of the threads drag on for perhaps longer than they should have. But still I found the book interesting, even through the first 300 pages that everyone says are a bore.

The last third of the book is very good, but it's really up to you as a reader to figure out if you can get there. It will require a long trek through 600 or so pages of what you might not find terribly interesting. I found the prospect of theoretical magicians rather intriguing in and of itself, which was enough to propel me through the first half of the book on its own. But sprinklings of actual magic do appear, and they are all entertaining and become more and more eerie as the book progresses. And by that point I had already been fascinated by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair and his wonderful faerie-ness.

As to claims that the book isn't funny... I just don't understand them. There were more than a handful of passages where I laughed out loud while I was reading. It's certainly a very dry humor, but it is there. There were even things that were blatantly silly (such as Mr Strange's belief that Venice was full of pineapples).

All in all, I enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. But I think it would be very understandable if someone else did not.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

I love books. Books are magic. I used to work at my college's library in 2007. Every shift I would end up having to shelve books, or go through each shelf to make sure that books were not out of order. One night a stumbled upon Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I felt like I had found some long forgotten tome when I picked it up. It was paperback. Black lettering in a period font with a silhouette of a raven on the front. Now, I know you're not supposed to judge books by their covers, but I was intrigued immediately. It is the best book I've ever read.

I will admit that I found the first sixty pages or so a bit difficult to get into, but it is more than worth it for the story that follows. The characters are crafted with love and humour, the dialogue is sharp and it feels like it really did happen. I know that the style of this book is off-putting for many people because it's in a period style, but that is one of the reasons it recommended itself to me. I've always been a big fan of Austen (many people compare the two) and I enjoy history and fantasy. I had great fun witnessing different historical events being interpreted through this lens of this alternate reality, and even more when historical characters made cameos.

This book has it all, really; magic, romance, history, battles, betrayal, heartbreak, humour- and it is so well researched! Did you know that it took Susanna Clarke ten years to write this book? There are so many details masterfully interwoven that when you finish you'll want to read it again and again because there is so much more to take in. This book was also included in Time's Top Ten Books of the Decade.

Most of the people I try to persuade to read this book are put off by its size, but by the time it's over, you'll wish it was twice as long.


I feel the need to defend this masterpiece.

As much as there are a couple of reviews defending already, the negatives here are of the most terrible order- not even admitting that there could possibly be some merit in the book! I'll admit that I can see the first few hundred pages not being to everyone's taste, they were certainly to mine.

I finished it just yesterday, and I'll be damned if it isn't one of the very best books I've ever read. It is fully deserving of its awards- after all, even if the prose is not to your liking, how can you say there is not a genius originality in the concept and execution? A magic and history quite unlike any other, and written- as others have said- in a pseudo-period style to boot. I know it had me enraptured and hungering for more for the whole month or so it was in my hands.

Contrary to others, I immensely enjoyed the first part. The style, concept and wit was brilliant, and I did not think it too slow at all. Perhaps I had the advantage of being British myself when it came to the humour.

And, as something to add, I actually felt the plot started moving too fast towards the end. I was so accustomed to the pleasant and slow pace of the beginning that I should have liked it to continue in kind (though, looking at other reviews, it was perhaps a wide choice not to do so). At any rate, a few hundred pages more would not have gone amiss.

All that said, please; read this book. It may or may not change your life.

I could not finish this book and do not understand why anyone would like it.

I do not understand why this book got all the hype that it did. I took it out from the library, and when I started reading it, it seemed like it would be a Pratchett-esque satire filled with amusingly dry British wit, complete with footnotes. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way. To say that the book moves along at a snail's pace is to insult snails. I read the first three hundred or so pages of the book. In those three hundred pages, absolutely nothing happens, and any charm or humor present in the writing style quickly vanishes. We get to read about how Mr. Norrell, a shy, reclusive British gentlemen, lives the thoroughly boring life of a thoroughly boring person, and avoids doing magic to the greatest extent possible. Jonathan Strange, the other title character, doesn't even show up at all until the end of those three hundred pages. Maybe it gets more interesting later on, but the complete lack of anything resembling entertainment value in more pages than most novels take to tell a complete story led me to the point of giving it the ultimate insult - abandoning it, half-finished, never to return to it again. I cannot recommend this book to anyone and am completely dumbfounded by the fact that it beat out David Brin's far superior Kiln People for the Hugo Award.

Skip it.

This book contains about five times as many words as it does story to support it. Populated by unsympathetic characters who speak in prose so purple it is almost Pride march on its own. Unless you like pretentiousness and a story that starts nowhere and goes nowhere, I'd give it a miss.

A Positive Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Review

This book certainly deserves all the hype it got, and also the numerous awards it won (not to mention those it got short and long-listed for). Neil Gaiman said it's unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years, referencing Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist - and I, having read both, wishes to top Gaiman's praise and name it the best English novel of the fantastic ever written. The commonest critique leveled against JS&MN is that the first 300 pages of it is too much of an impediment and should have been trimmed liberally. I disagree. Those chapters are crucial in establishing the characters, the attitudes of Englishmen of the period and more importantly, to introduce Susanna Clarke's England - which is very much a character in her own right. The momentum of the narrative can be plotted on a exponential graph. Clarke slips her readers the tiniest instances of magic at the beginning - meagre, yes - but magic in her England is of the most bizarre and eerie sort. Magicians do not wave sticks and conjure up things in JS&MN like they do in the ADD-ish fantasy novels these days. No, the acts of Magic she describes are dark, chilling and will make the hairs on the back of your necks stand on ends. The sort of spells Norrell and Strange cast in this novel sounded scarily plausible, and Clarke's liberal use of footnotes in reference to famous books of magic, historical in-jokes and supposedly common English folktales serve to bolster that impression. The plot of the novel is admittedly thin, but oh, how richly Clarked dressed it up! I mean that in the best possible way. Clarke has a Austen-esque flair for describing things and she does it with a great deal of wit (I actually laughed out loud many times while reading this novel). The ten years it took her to write this book shows, and I certainly hope that I would not have to wait another decade for its sequel. If you are tired of threadbare narratives and authors clearly interested only in moving plots; if you want to be awed and enchanted; if you are looking for magic so convincing it that it'll give you shivers and goose pimples on a hot summer day - Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is most assuredly the book for you.