Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke (2004)

To call Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell a modern fantasy would not be quite correct; while it is certainly urban, it does not take place in some medieval or psuedo-medieval time, rather it is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. This works quite well, giving the novel a flavor of being slightly distant while still somewhat familiar. The fact that it is well written and intricately plotted certainly adds to the success of the book.

The plot starts out simply enough, with Mr Norrell, a reclusive scholar, bringing "practical magic" back to England. The distinction is important, for theoretical magicians, those who study the history of magic, abound, but Norrell seems to be the only one who can actually perform magic. To convince the authorities that he is capable of restoring magic to England, Norrell bends his principals slightly and bargains with a faerie to perform a great work of magic. Thus the plot is set underway.

This is, in many ways, a classic faerie tale. I do not mean by that the Disnified versions of faerie tales with sparkles and happy, laughing bluebirds. No, indeed, this is a tale where inhuman and immortal (or nearly so) creatures interfere with mankind for their own reasons, which may be nothing more than amusing themselves with our pain. The idea that any bargain with the fae is likely to be more trouble than it is worth is an old one and runs throughout the novel.

Clarke has deftly woven together her alternate history of Britain with real history and populated her book with characters both fictional and historical. The book reads quickly and well, drawing the reader in almost before he is aware of it. The two main characters, the unpleasant but compelling Mr Norrell and the charming but reckless Jonathan Strange, are by turns partners and rivals, but their relationship never seems forced but follows clearly from their individual characters.

The ending, while moderately upbeat, does not dispel the dark cloud which hangs over the whole novel, the cloud of that danger which covers those who dabble in the supernatural.

Overall Grade: A

No comments: