Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic. They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – nor ever done anyone the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel, by Susanna Clarke, is one of my favourite books. It’s set in Regency England (1800’s – the time of Napoleon) and reads like a wonderful historical fiction that just happens to be about the return of magic to England by the two titular magicians. It is a thoroughly different fantasy – this is blatant from the beginning. It’s this unusualness that prevents me from recommending it to everyone – I am aware that some people dislike the book for the same reasons that I enjoy it. You see this isn’t a quick-paced quick read – as it’s hulking size should suggest. It also isn’t the typical quick fantasy read filled with action, magical battles and easy going prose. Nor is it typical of the ‘saga’ type of fantasy, with their hosts of characters and sprawling sequels – this is a stand-alone book (although rumours of a ‘sequel’ set in same universe exist) with, as the name suggests, only two main characters. I am not alone in my love of the book – it won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, reached number 3 on the New York Times best-seller list and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It is currently being adapted for a BBC One Drama.
Oh! And they read English novels! David! Did you ever look into an English novel? Well, do not trouble yourself. It is nothing but a lot of nonsense about girls with fanciful names getting married.
The basic premise is that once, long ago, magic thrived in England. It reached it’s pinnacle during the time of the Raven King – a human raised in Faerie who ruled Northern England for 300 years. Ever since, magic has declined and in 1806 all magicians are theoretical magicians – gentleman scholars who talk about what magic once was. The reason of the decline is unknown and when the York society of magicians attempt to discover why there is no magic in England they find out that there is one last practising magician – Mr Gilbert Norrell. This reclusive bookworm decides that it his duty to restore English magic to it’s former glory – well actually, only the parts he thinks are proper and respectable. He enters the public sphere, after some difficulty, and demonstrates that magic is still a force in the world. While doing so he accidentally sets in motion events that spiral beyond his control and knowledge.
It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.
So why do I like this book so much?
For a start the prose is brilliant. As the book is set in the 19th century the writing style is a pastiche of the time period’s writing styles (think Austen and Dickens). It is witty, moving, scary, sarcastic, compelling… fantastic. Clarke has an incredible gift with language – using the right words at the right time to create her multifaceted world – be it mundane or magical, it is written wonderfully. This is a book to read slower than normal to savour the descriptions and the wonderfully snarky narrator.
Mr Robinson was a polished sort of person. He was so clean and healthy and pleased about everything that he positively shone—which is only to be expected in a fairy or an angel, but is somewhat disconcerting in an attorney.
The story is character-driven and is not a sequence of magic battles, duels, explosions and all that action-ey fluff. Even though there is war in the book it presents itself atypically. In fact, this book could easily be recommended to people who don’t normally read fantasy – although magic is an all important part of the story it isn’t treated in the normal way. Magic doesn’t solve all the problems and neither is it a stand-in for some part of technology. It’s this all-powerful, mysterious, otherworldly force that is unpredictable and not understood despite the countless years of its study. Of a greater importance to the story are the characters, they are complex and interesting – there wasn’t one character that made me groan, “Oh, not her again…” (Sansa and Perrin – I’m talking to you).
I’d like to end with a quote by one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman, on this book:
Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years. It’s funny, moving, scary, otherworldly, practical and magical, a journey through light and shadow – a delight to read.