September 15, 2006

A Fantasy Masterpiece of British Proportions

Every so often a book comes along that just blows me away simply because it does something that I've never seen before, and does it well. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is just such a book. The first title by this author, it is a massive tome nearly 800 pages long. The story juggles an enormous but memorable cast of multi-dimensional characters and dazzlingly interweaves a dozen intriguing plot threads.

The genre, if it must be defined, is historical fantasy. The novel begins in England in 1806. Magic, once an everyday part of English life and culture, has (to all appearances) disappeared from England entirely. Modern-day magicians are gentleman-scholars who study and write books about magic and its history, but who do not possess any actual books of magic, and do not under any circumstances practice it.

Two members of the The Learned Society of York Magicians, Mr. Segundus and Mr. Honeyfoot, are determined to discover why magic has fallen out of use. Their investigations bring to light the fussy, reclusive bookworm Gilbert Norrell, owner of the largest magical library in history (which no one knew existed) and the only practicing magician England has seen in over a hundred years. Mr. Norrell bursts spectacularly on the national scene when he brings the statues of York Cathedral to life before proceeding on to London to offer his services to the government in the ongoing Napoleonic Wars.

Before long a second practical magician emerges from the woodwork to become Mr. Norrell's apprentice. He is Jonathan Strange, a fiery, intelligent young man who is everything Norrell is not. Where Norrell is cautious and fearful, Strange is brave and impatient. Where Norrell's magic comes only from his books, Strange has an uncanny grasp of the basis of magical theory, and can improvise many of his own spells. And where Norrell is outspoken in his loathing for all things connected with fairy magic, Strange finds himself strangely drawn to fairy lore.

In particular, Strange is fascinated by anything to do with John Uskglass, a human child raised by fairies who emerged from Faerie to become the greatest magician in history. Uskglass established the very foundations of English magic and went on to rule northern England for 300 years during the High Middle Ages before mysteriously disappearing with the promise to one day return and reclaim his throne.

Of course, before long, Strange and Norrell's differing magical philosophies cause relations between the grow increasingly tense, while, unbeknownst to either of them, a unpredictable, sinister force has been awakened and is working mysteriously behind the scenes to ruin both of them.

The novel, however, is far from following the above summary with simply, straightforward storytelling. The entire story is peppered liberally with footnotes containing further fascinating information on the rich and convincing alternate history Clarke has created for England in the form of charming anecdotes, references to magical texts, and explanations of spells and the like.

Clarke draws on a more-than-ample heritage of all things British to create her book. Many of her characters could easily be the beloved creations of Austen, Dickens. Her humor is as dry and hilarious as anything by Shaw or Wilde. Her ability to create new worlds and the originality of her fantasy bring to mind the best of Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling. Her story is as historically grounded and engaging as anything by O'Brian (to name something set in the same period). Her social commentary is as witty, appealing, and incisive as Forster's. Her alternate history and fairy lore are drawn from a vast melting pot of some of the best elements of British folklore and fairy tales, the Arthur legends, and a few bon mots from Shakespeare and Spenser for extra flavor. Her characters encounter and influence history without severely altering it, heightening the realism, and the major historical players who have important roles in the book include figures like the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron.

In short, Susanna Clarke has written a unique book and populated and enlivened it with the best and brightest that British culture, history, literature and mythology have to offer. If matters of Britain appeal to you, or you enjoy storytelling that pulls you inside another world where you can happily spend hours on end, you should probably give Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell a try. If you love both, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy.

And now I should really end this particular review, lest I succumb to the overpowering temptation to quote long passages. Still, perhaps just one minor quote wouldn't hurt:

A lovely young Italian girl passed by. Byron tilted his head to a very odd angle, half-closed his eyes and composed his features to suggest that he was about to expire from chronic indigestion. Dr. Greysteel could only suppose that he was treating the young woman to the Byronic profile and the Byronic expression.

Now, go forth. Read.

Posted by Jared at September 15, 2006 02:35 PM | TrackBack