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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell    by Susanna Clarke order for
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
Order:  USA  Can
Bloomsbury, 2005 (2004)
Hardcover, Softcover, Audio, CD
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

It's quite a tome, with extensive historical footnotes, so settle in for a long read. This literary fantasy is set in the early 1800s in an alternate Europe, where magic used to be a powerful factor in life and politics, but has been dormant for a long time. England looks on it as a past glory. The story builds up very slowly, introducing Mr. Norrell as a reclusive, grasping magician, who is gradually accepted at all levels of London society. This fussy little man can bear no competition to his pre-eminent role in an England where charlatans abound but practicing magicians are rare.

One such charlatan (who is more than he seems) is Vinculus, whose father was hanged for the dastardly crime of 'book-murder'. Vinculus spouts prophecy involving the Raven King (once ruler of the North and source of all English magic) and 'Two magicians', and becomes a key catalyst in events. His predictions of England's new magicians includes: 'The first shall pass his life alone; he shall be his own gaoler; / The second shall tread lonely roads, the storm above his head, seeking a dark tower upon a high hillside ...' To reach his position of influence, we see Norrell practice a dark magic on Lady Pole, affianced to a government minister. It saves her life but puts her in the power of an unpredictably malicious faery king. Soon, she's in a similar, wearying position to that of The Twelve Dancing Princesses of legend. The repercussions of Norrell's attempt to impress soon ripple out to drag others, including a black ex-slave, into regular fey encounters, and into a land of Faery that melds with our own in odd ways.

We don't meet Jonathan Strange till a third of the way through the book, as the tale, told with a light irony, develops at a leisurely (even long-winded) pace, demanding patience from its reader. This young, aimless, self-indulgent gentleman's magical career starts serendipitously, as he attempts to impress his future wife, Arabella. Eventually, they move to London where, after initial resistance from Mr. Norrell, Jonathan becomes the great man's pupil. The parts of the book I enjoyed most covered Jonathan's magical workings for the Duke of Wellington against Napoleon Bonaparte, and the way the author connects this historical fantasy to real personages and events. Strange develops his own reputation and following, and eventually breaks with Norrell. This does not lead to a trite battle between magicians, but rather to misunderstandings and to an obsessive quest on Strange's part that sends him traveling far, as prophesied.

Though Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is an excellent book and a new fantasy classic, it is likely to appeal more to the literary crowd than to most fantasy fans, who expect a faster paced story. Looking for author comparisons, the closest I can come up with are Jane Austen and Mervyn Peake, an unlikely pair ... indeed, just as much an odd couple as Strange and Norrell.

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