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Worth the lengthy read

4out of 5

by greebs on May 10, 2007

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Susanna Clarke's debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is not the tales of magic, the land of Fairie, the way the English supposedly cast spells over Napoleon Bonaparte to win the war...but the fact that Clarke got a 800-plus page novel published as her very first. That's remarkable...but then, so is the book.

I've never been one to read "fantasy" novels, and despite liking this a great deal, I doubt that this will change. But Clarke's novel is a wonder: it begins with the premise that many hundreds of years ago, magic was accepted and widely practised throughout England, a land that intersects the magical kingdom of Fairie. Indeed, it was so accepted that one king - the Raven King, aka John Uskglass - ruled both kingdoms, as well as a third that most presumed to be Hell.

Flash forward to the early 1800s, and magic is more of a philosophy, something to be debated and studied, but not practised. Gilbert Norrell, a recluse who has bought up most of the magic books in the world, is different. He can practise magic, and because he sneers at others who merely talk about it, he comes up with a way to ensure that he is the only magician in England. All this changes when Jonathan Strange arrives; a gifted prodigy, the two begin a mentor-student relationship that forms the majority of the novel.

The story itself is quite interesting, and though it's longer than it need be, that's rarely an issue. The tone of the book is written in an Olde English style, a la Jane Austen, which does take a bit of getting used to, but again, no real complaints. Where I had issues occasionally was with the footnotes. As a huge fan of David Foster Wallace, I'm not one to complain about lengthy footnotes, but at least his are often relevant to the plot. Here, more often than not, they were amusing anecdotes, but merely that. With a book of this length, either have them lend value to the plot, or tighten it up.

All of that being said, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was a thoroughly enjoyable book, and one that I'd definitely recommend.
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Reviewed by greebs

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