Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: We love it

Readers’ average rating:

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review susanna clarke Jonathan Strange and Mr. NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I’m giving Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a 5 for the simply reason that I thoroughly enjoyed it all the way through, but I’d warn all readers to be more wary than usual of reviews (including this one). More than many books, this one I think will be a matter of true personal taste and experience will be your only truly accurate guide.

To begin with, Strange is often referred to as a “fantasy” novel, an “adult” Harry Potter (ignoring Potter’s self-obvious claim to millions of “adult” readers). If you’re expecting fantasy in the form of Harry Potter magic (though done by bigger people employing bigger words) or Lord of the Rings-like quests and elves, be advised neither is here. Fantastical might be a better genre-word here than “fantasy”. There is certainly magic here, both human and faerie (very different forms), but when one of the major storylines is how magic has gradually disappeared from England and when one of the major characters has as his purpose the destruction (not Black Tower hordes of evil monsters destruction but economic, social, or legal destruction) of those who would become magicians, as you might imagine there isn’t a lot of magic going on, at least not for the first few hundred pages. Those looking for a lot of wand-waving or fireball-flinging would best look elsewhere.

One of the signs of the book’s maturity is that one can’t really generalize too much about the magic in it. Magic is almost invisible in the beginning and near-constant toward the end. It is scholarly, bookish and tedious and also vigorous, physical and exciting. It is human and Faerie and a melding of the two. It is all-powerful (Spain complains about the rearrangement of several of their country’s geographic landmarks) and ineffective (you can see visions in water but they seldom are helpful). It is the subject of dry articles in academic journals and the cause of near-rumbles in local taverns. It is wonderfully complex and realistic. It is at times dazzlingly original (ships and sailors formed of rain, statues anguished over crimes committed beneath them), and handled often as if it is the most pedestrian, mundane aspect of daily life, except for the whole raise-the-dead, towering-shaft-of-neverending-night sort of thing.

As for other fantasy genre elements, there is no band of diverse creatures setting out on a quest to defeat some dark lord; no tall, shining elvish archers; no nomadic horse-loving tribes. If you want to find a Tolkien analogue, it isn’t Lord of the Rings, but Smith of Wooten Major, an often forgotten story about the collision of the human and faerie realms.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is also referred to as a historical novel. It is set in early 19th century England, Wellington and other historical figures make their appearance, characters travel in carriages rather than cars. But the book’s historical setting, like its magical element, is more pervasive than emphatic. It exists alongside the characters and story and serves them rather than being front and center as is true of so many historical novels. One is always aware of the historical setting, but I don’t think anyone would come away from Strange with a truly enlarged understanding of the time period, as say one might from Lindsay Davis’ mystery series set in ancient Rome, where specific foods and social rituals and forms of clothing etc. are constantly set before the reader. The setting is utterly believable, I’m sure meticulously researched, detailed and accurate, but it still doesn’t feel like a “historical novel”. Which from my view is a strength, not a weakness.

My advice, therefore, is not to place your “should I read or not” bet on the book’s labels. What should you know?

It’s long. Very long. Longer than it seems according to the page count, since there are pages and pages of small-type footnotes throughout. Is it too long? I’m sure many people will think so. It takes its time in setting up story and character; leisurely is probably too fast-paced a description. It is far from compelling in the first few hundred pages in the sense of “must turn page to find out what happens.” Personally, I found it compelling through character and style rather than plot. If you prefer plot, then prepare to be somewhat bored until the latter third where it moves along more speedily and in a more traditional compelling manner.

It’s discursive. Very discursive. It will wander away quite often and sometimes at great length from the major plot lines, interrupting with academic asides or summaries/analyses of old folktales, or snippets of poetry. Again, some will probably find this maddening; some will simply skip the footnotes entirely. I liked the discursive nature of the book and found the footnotes often as enjoyable as the main text, always tolerable, and only rarely annoying.

It is often beautifully written. It’s one of those books where you’ll pause over a line to reread it or let its effect linger a little while, whether due to the simple beauty of description, the efficiency of its brevity, or its dry wit. It is a true pleasure to read. Not to find out what happened. Simply to read.

It’s often funny. It is at times frighteningly dark. It has at times a domestic feel and at other times a grand mythic feel, especially in connection to the Raven King, the mysterious magician-king of old North England who also ruled over a land of Faerie and allegedly another land bordering Hell who disappeared centuries ago with the promise of return. Whether that return is to be wished for or not is the core dispute between the two magicians of the title.

It is character driven. There are many wonderful scenes of “action,” more so toward the latter half, but they tend to be understated while the book focuses more on character. Both Strange and Norrell are fully fleshed out characters, totally believable in all their assets and flaws. We are given the time to know them and if Strange seems more appealing due to his more active role in the book, Norrell is no less accessible or recognizable for his minor jealousies and passiveness, though we may wish to deny the same traits in ourselves. The story of their meeting, their partnership, their sundering and what comes next is one of the major storylines and one of the more engaging, even if it happens mostly on the interior and despite the fact that the characters themselves are not particularly compelling by nature.

There is a lot more one could say about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It’s a lengthy work and a dense work. One could discuss the conflict between wild faerie and civilized England — presented in shades of grey rather than black and white. The sharp social commentary. The distant narrative tone. But this review is edging close to the length of one of her footnotes, so I’ll bring it to a close.

Try Jonathan Strange. If it doesn’t draw you along, keep trying. If it still doesn’t, try skimming footnotes, skimming pages, dipping in now and then to keep up on plot and catch one of those well-crafted lines, then come in for a landing and try again word by word. It isn’t a rollercoaster ride on a summer Saturday. But it is a memorably gorgeous walk on a crisp autumn day, filled with slow sensual delight. Highly recommended.

~Bill Capossere


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange and Mr. NorrellLet me say two things about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell:

1. This is one of the finest novels I have ever read. Ever.

2. You might hate it.

Okay, let me say more. I listened to this book on audio and, because of the language and humor, I was delighted from the very start. I listened for 32 hours and approximately 25 of those hours are rather slow. Interesting stuff happens, but nothing that’s going to put you on the edge of your seat. It’s leisurely and teasing. It’s not clear how all of the characters and plots relate to each other. If you’re ready for action, it’s a bit frustrating. But the action finally does arrive and all of the characters and plots finally come together in an unexpected and satisfying way. Looking back, you realize that the plot was clever and quite tight all along.

What kept me going was that the writing is absolutely glorious. Susanna Clarke writes like Charles Dickens or Jane Austen or one of those other 19th century English novelists who we love because of the insightful and subtly witty social commentary and the plain but elegant writing style. She’s right up there with the best. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who writes better than Susanna Clarke. And for this reason, I must give the book 5 stars. It is a superb novel.

Particularly fun were a few devices that I really enjoyed such as the intrusive narrator somewhat reminiscent of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, fictional characters interacting with real historical figures (Lord Byron was my favorite), and a few little alternate explanations of how some historical events in arts and literature came to be (I won’t give you any examples because discovering them is the fun part).

The audiobook is also superb. The reader, Simon Prebble, is English (in case you couldn’t tell by his name), and his diction, pace, and voices are perfect. I love the voice he uses for the more uncouth characters — it just sounds slimy. This was a great novel to listen to — Mr. Prebble’s voices add to the dry humor—but keep in mind that it will take you 32 hours. It’s quite a time investment, but well worth it.

So, I recommend that you read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell when you have the time to be patient and when you’re in the mood to be delighted by a long elegant English novel. If you’re in a hurry, or if you’re in the mood for quests, orphan boys, sword-fighting, or dragons, don’t bother.

This is the perfect book for the right reader. In fact, I recommend purchasing a hardback copy of this one (I so very rarely say that!). I can’t wait to see what Susanna Clarke does next — she’s brilliant!

~Kat Hooper


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange and Mr. NorrellThis is one of my favorite books. I loved how she maintained the writing style and still revealed character. And of course I loved the story.

~Marion Deeds


book review Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange and Mr. NorrellTadiana tries to read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell with her book club:

Tadiana: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell is like a mashup of Jane Austen, or maybe Charles Dickens, and fantasy, with Regency-era British magicians and charming, vindictive and devious faeries. It creates an incredibly rich, complex and detailed fantasy world; the Raven King mythology is fantastic. The main plotline of this novel deals with the on-and-off friendship between two very different magicians: Mr Norrell, who is bookish, stuffy and reclusive, and Jonathan Strange, who’s a younger, charming and impetuous person, and their dealings and troubles with Faerie and other magical places and characters, but there are several subplots intricately woven into this tale. It thoughtfully explores some interesting issues that you wouldn’t expect, like the difficulties women, servants and minorities have had in making their voices heard. This is a truly unique and inventive novel. It challenged my brain and fascinated me. I adored it.

Rest of book club: This book is soooo long. And kind of confusing. Not to mention slow and boring.

Tadiana: I love the dry humor. The tongue-in-cheek quasi-scholarly footnotes totally crack me up.

Rest of book club: Seriously, what is the deal with those bizarre footnotes? They’re just weird.

Tadiana: Imma buy this in hardback and keep it forever.

Rest of book club: DNF

~Tadiana Jones


book review Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange and Mr. NorrellI adore the way Clarke shapes a sentence – she is the absolute master of “show, don’t tell”, giving the reader all the details but letting them figure out what’s happening by themselves.

The chapters in the lead-up to Arabella’s disappearance are some of the most haunting passages I’ve ever read.

~Rebecca Fisher

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — (2004) Available at Audible.com. Publisher: English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call; they could command winds, mountains, and woods. But by the early 1800s they have long since lost the ability to perform magic. They can only write long, dull papers about it, while fairy servants are nothing but a fading memory. But at Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire, the rich, reclusive Mr Norrell has assembled a wonderful library of lost and forgotten books from England’s magical past and regained some of the powers of England’s magicians. He goes to London and raises a beautiful young woman from the dead. Soon he is lending his help to the government in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte, creating ghostly fleets of rain-ships to confuse and  alarm the French. All goes well until a rival magician appears. Jonathan Strange is handsome, charming, and talkative-the very opposite of Mr Norrell. Strange thinks nothing of enduring the rigors of campaigning with Wellington’s army and doing magic on battlefields. Astonished to find another practicing magician, Mr Norrell accepts Strange as a pupil. But it soon becomes clear that their ideas of what English magic ought to be are very different. For Mr Norrell, their power is something to be cautiously controlled, while Jonathan Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic. He becomes fascinated by the ancient, shadowy figure of the Raven King, a child taken by fairies who became king of both England and Faerie, and the most legendary magician of all. Eventually Strange’s heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens to destroy not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear. Sophisticated, witty, and ingeniously convincing, Susanna Clarke’s magisterial novel weaves magic into a flawlessly detailed vision of historical England. She has created a world so thoroughly enchanting that eight hundred pages leave readers longing for more.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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2 comments

  1. Oh, yes. I read it in the traditional manner and was glued to it for days. Wondrous.

  2. Melanie Goldmund /

    Thanks to this review, I thought I’d give this book a re-read, as I haven’t looked at it since I read it the first time right after it came out — and I’m liking it much more now than I remember doing way back then. :-)

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