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Spreading the reach of British magic

  • Aug 14, 2008
  • by
Illustrations by Portia Rosenberg

This book I found purely at random as I walked through the fiction section at my local public library in search of reading material (one cannot go home empty-handed from a place where books are being given away!), starting at the front of the alphabet, hence the author's name beginning with C. Surprisingly, this book has many similarities to Pynchon's Mason & Dixon: A Novel, which I had just finished, in its massive size (700+ pages, surely a determining factor in discovering Clarke's book in a random shelf scan), its purported historicity, its seamless and matter-of-fact incorporation of fantastic elements in historical settings, its depiction of the relationship of two men who are both friends and co-workers in fast public projects, and in their gentle ironic humor.

Clarke's writing style is not so raucous as Pynchon's, but the fantastical nature perhaps elevated. Mr. Norrell is famed as the only "practical magician" in England, an honor he has diligently sought and brought upon himself by purchasing all the books on practical magic he can find (except one who will make his appearance later!) and by discouraging all others from practicing (sometimes with the help of lawyers). Norrell is a retiring, gloomy, private man, not given to public spectacles of magic, but desiring to use his magic for the national cause. He becomes his own federal bureaucracy as it were, working with the British government to help defeat the French on the continent.

Jonathan Strange is a young, vivacious man (Norrell's polar opposite) in pursuit of a woman he hopes to marry who has no notion of becoming a magician, practical or theoretical, until he meets with the character I introduced above who reads off a philosophy that Jonathan Strange will become the second great magician of the age. Drawn to Norrell in London, the two become master and pupil as Strange learns his craft, and partners in public works as Strange joins the British Army effort against the French.

Unlike Norrell, Strange hopes to spread the reach of British magic, and to learn more about its ancient past rooted in fairies and the "slave king" John Uskglass. In pursuit of this goal, Strange loses his wife, his sanity, his friendship with Norrell, and unlocks a chain of events that he can't control that ultimately ends up almost all for the good, and therein is the source of a 782-page novel.

Much like Pynchon, I find it hard to rate such a tree-killing effort as a classic, despite the quality and enjoyability of the results. Well worth reading as a potential classic, but that rating weighed against the commitment of time it requires drops it to the second level.

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Quick Tip by . August 09, 2010
My mental images of this novel consist, now, totally of illustrations by embley.deviantart.com
review by . February 20, 2005
This is a doorstopper of a book, coming in at over 780 pages and weighing several pounds! It takes quite an effort to hold it up or prop it up to read, but the effort is well worth it. The first time author has presented an early 19th century England that had once been divided north and south into two different kingdoms, the northern half ruled by the Raven King, a human/fairy magician. We are introduced to two magicians whose task it becomes to restore magic to England, since the magic has basically …
review by . February 20, 2005
The joy of this book is not in its length, for it is too long, but for the fully-formed world and the arch manner of the writing. Too many people have tried to compare this to Harry Potter for some very superficial similarities: it's set in an England where magic works, the author is female and the book is a brick. But this is not a children's book, albeit those weaned on Potter might find this interesting if quite slow in comparison, for Clarke's method is much more subtle. This is a comedy of …
review by . December 11, 2004
After shifting through many reviews I came to this conclusion, you either love or hate this book. I am definitely in the former group. In fact, personally I wonder how any could not love this wonderful piece of fiction?     My guess is that a large group of people misunderstand the intent of the author (and that don't find humor in the genre of satire). Ms.Clarke does not intend to deliver a fast-paced good vs. evil epic. Nothing could be further from the truth... instead she …
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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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It's 1808 and that Corsican upstart Napoleon is battering the English army and navy. Enter Mr. Norrell, a fusty but ambitious scholar from the Yorkshire countryside and the first practical magician in hundreds of years. What better way to demonstrate his revival of British magic than to change the course of the Napoleonic wars? Susanna Clarke's ingenious first novel,Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, has the cleverness and lightness of touch of theHarry Potter series, but is less a fairy tale of good versus evil than a fantastic comedy of manners, complete with elaborate false footnotes, occasional period spellings, and a dense, lively mythology teeming beneath the narrative. Mr. Norrell moves to London to establish his influence in government circles, devising such powerful illusions as an 11-day blockade of French ports by English ships fabricated from rainwater. But however skillful his magic, his vanity provides an Achilles heel, and the differing ambitions of his more glamorous apprentice, Jonathan Strange, threaten to topple all that Mr. Norrell has achieved. A sparkling debut from Susanna Clarke--and it's not all fairy dust.--Regina Marler
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ISBN-10: 1582344167
ISBN-13: 978-1582344164
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Date Published: September 2004
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