Before I begin reviewing, a word first on my lack of updates. I’m posting a lot slower than I thought I would be. I aimed for 2-3 times a week, but I was too optimistic, I think. Of course the issue isn’t how fast I read, because I’m not reading the books I’m reviewing now, I’m just going back and reviewing what I read before, but even that takes some effort. You’d think that five times a week after work I’d be able to squeeze in the time to whip up a couple of paragraphs, but nope. In between trying to feed myself, sleeping and attempting to have some semblance of a social life, I’m tuckered out. Part of me thinks I’m making excuses (there’s always never enough time to do something!) but uhm, yeah I suppose that’s it. There’s really no reason I wouldn’t be able to concentrate to serve up the goods, but I never got the hang of typing on a desk, so I lounge in bed while writing a review and then next thing I know, a few hours have gone by and I still haven’t written anything.
So what’s the point of this? Just that I can’t promise reviews except at the glacial pace that I’m currently on now. There. That sets the bar low enough so that when I do have time to review more than once a week, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Ah-ha, the W is working extra hard to deliver content! as you will say.
Yes. I am. Making every effort!
And now, onwards with the review! Another spoiler warning, I’m going to reveal a good chunk of the book’s story but be assured that they do not interfere with the main plot, only the setup.
The book takes a different angle to how the concept of magic is presented in fantasy novels. The usual offering is that the world is set in an alternative universe where kings and kingdoms rule the Earth (or other worlds of the authors’ making) and there are people gifted with the ability to use magic. Then some type of war is brewing, the characters are easily identifiable as good or evil, and they all gear up for a showdown or two. Well, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange does have all the elements of fantasy except for the first one. She sets her magical place in England and leaves the magicking to only two men, Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange.
The premise is that magic is real in England. There were old kings whose histories delved into their usage of magic but the art of practicing is lost on current English society. There are enthusiasts though, who meet regularly to talk about magic in the olden days and who proudly call themselves magicians, even though their knowledge of it extends to what they read in books. Little do they know that magic is still real, and that there is a man who can practice it, and he is Mr. Norrell. In the beginning scenes, he challenged the men that if he can show them that he is a practicing magician, they must give up their silly pretensions that they are magicians too because, well, how can you call yourself one if you can’t do it?
Mr. Norrell won the challenge. The news traveled to London fast and he instantly became an ally of the government’s, which was his design in the first place. He wanted to use magic for a higher purpose and he detested the men who called themselves magicians because they did not contribute anything to the practice of magic. Norrell is a proud and strange guy but he loves magic. His bent on studying all there is to know about magic leads him to collect all books on it because he wants them to himself and doesn’t want anyone else reading them.
Enter Jonathan Strange. His foray into magic came about accidentally, but after he is introduced, he realizes that he has a gift for it. When he wanted to learn more, he found that there are no books left. So he goes to Norrell to study under his tutelage. Norrell begrudges Strange because Norrell wants to be the only magician in England. His influence on government officials is more powerful if there is no one else with the expertise to go against him (Norrell is smart enough to master the concept of a monopoly), but Norrell sees that Strange does have an aptitude for magic so he does help Strange, in a limited fashion.
The story really picks up when Strange veers off the path that Norrell set out for him, when England was at war. Government officials think that aiding the military would be a fine way to use magic, so they ask Norrell to do so. Norrell refuses for some reason that I can’t remember, but Strange is eager to go so he went. His experience there shapes his view on how magic should be used and when he came back from the war, he disliked Norrell’s confining instructions and Strange broke off with him. What follows then is the whole adventure of the book.
Whew. And to think, all of that is only the setup!
I truly love this book. It’s hefty but it is a very satisfying read. The story can be slow going since each chapter is a standalone. You don’t feel that rush to turn the pages until you’re done, but once you complete a chapter, you feel satisfied. You can stop reading or continue for another morsel, but at the end of each chapter, you know more about this world and feel a part of it. Or at least I did. It’s a marathon instead of a sprint, to use a metaphor.
And each character is well-written. Clarke doesn’t tell you their motivations but you suss them out as you read. Also, the fantastical portions of the book can be really strange and creepy but somehow, Clarke has convinced you along the way that fantastical parts of a book should be strange and creepy, not just merely dragons or bouncing staff laser beams. I love the book all the more because of this.
Very, very good book. I’d recommend to everyone, even the non-fantasy readers. The book’s size is a deterrent and the pace may bother some people, but this is a book where I really felt transported to another world. I’d have everyone pick it up and read a chapter a week (if it comes to that), if that’s the only way I can get people to read it.