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Review of Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Posted by phduffy on 2005-11-03 21:34:47
Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a rather boring sounding,a nd boring looking, novel by Susanna Clarke.
It is also the best book I have read in the past 3 years.

The book has received a number of kudos, from being shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel award, and the Guardian First Book Award to winning the Hugo (although the Hugo win isn't mentioned anywhere on the book, because this is Litrateur, not speculative fiction. No fault of the author though).

The story is relatively simple. It's 1807 and magic has disappeared from England. The men who know call themselves magicians are nothing more than magical historians, who do no practical magic at all.

Until the day that Mr. Norrell shows up at a magicians gathering and shows them that perhaps magic is not dead after all. Mr. Norrell then takes on a pupil, a young Jonathan Strange. The two learn about magic, get involved in politics, and, off course, eventually quarrel. At the same time, we learn about the live of the people around them, and the connection that some of them have with magic.

Despite the fact that this book concerns the return of magic to England, it is not a traditional fantasy. There are no quests, and even though Strange and Norrell quarrel, there are no magical duels. In fact, when asked if a magician could kill a man with magic, Strange replies "I suppose a magician might, but a gentleman never could." This is a book that evokes the wonderous and the magical, not the epic and the dark. Strange attempts to communicate with Faerie, and there we see one of Clarke's influences, the works of fantasists prior to Tolkien, as well as contemporary artists like Neil Gaiman (who is a friend of hers and pushed for the publication of this book).

As I metnioned, this novel brings a sense of wonder very rarely seen anymore, and despite it's faults (it is a little long), this is an absolutely tremendous novel.