BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In early 19th Century England, the only magicians left are those who study magic (theoretical magicians) with one exception: Mr. Norrell. Mr. Norrell embarks on a path to bring magic back to prominence in England, but without revealing its roots in fairy creatures and other lands. Jonathan Strange becomes Mr. Norrell’s pupil, but soon begins his own quest to revive magic by opposing Mr. Norrell’s view.
PROS: Incredibly detailed world building, interesting characters, filled with humor.
CONS: A very long read, system of magic isn’t really detailed, can be somewhat dry.
BOTTOM LINE: I can see why this book won the Hugo based on it’s world building alone. The humor and characters are icing.
I’d heard a lot about this book and it’s recent Hugo award prompted me to pick a copy up from the local library. I knew it was big, but it clocks in at almost 800 pages in hardback. I’m not usually daunted by reading door-stop books, but being a fantasy book I wasn’t sure if I would like it. Well, I did. It’s hard to describe what genre this would fit in. Certainly alternate history and certainly fantasy, although without trolls or elves. Much like ‘steam punk’ describes that sub-genre where Victorian Era tech is taken to extremes, Ms. Clarke has created a new area where magic becomes common place in the early 19th Century. Let’s get to the details.
The first thing that jumps out at you is the world building Ms. Clarke has done. She obviously has done a lot of work on creating a detailed history leading up to the story. This shows in the numerous footnotes throughout the book. Sometimes, these notes can run to multiple pages. Almost every magical tome mentioned has some back story that is detailed and many of the myths and legends mentioned get their own footnote that actually gives the story. This does wonders for creating a truly believable setting that seems real and lived in. Also, several words are deliberately spelled using the period spelling which adds yet another level of realism to the story. A remarkable job that, in my opinion, had as much to do with the Hugo as anything else. The characters themselves are quite good too, each with their own quirks and conceits that bring them to life. Mr. Norrell wants to bring magic back to the forefront of English thought, but he wants it on his own terms, bereft of its true underpinnings in the fairy world. He goes to any extreme to eradicate any mention of the fairy world and buys all the books of, or about, magic which he then keeps in his library and will let no one see. Mr. Strange also wants to bring magic back to its former glory, but he eventually realized that magicians must be cognizant of magic’s roots to make full use of it’s power. This sets up a conflict between the two magicians that takes up the latter half of the book. The secondary characters are also interesting with con-men, cut-purses, and a second-hand magician who turns out to be something more (and his condition is actually a really cool concept) among them. All of these characters are infused with typical British traits of dry humor, a penchant for outrageous understatement and extreme politeness, even when confronting those they would just as soon smack in the mouth as talk to. The humor flows from these traits and is literally everywhere in the book.
I had two issues with the story itself. One, it’s very long. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, there are very few set pieces with any action. It’s more of a story of discovery than action/adventure, but I would have expected more confrontation than what we get. This leads to parts of the story to be somewhat dry in tone. Another problem I had was that the way the magicians used magic was never explained. Typically, you’d know a spell was cast when you read something like: ‘Mr. Strange performed the spell.’ This passive voice seemed odd to me and didn’t give any hint as to what the magic looked like (no mind-candy here) or what the magician was doing. I will say that the spells themselves have very descriptive names that sound like something the British would come up with. I guess you could say they did since Ms. Clarke is British…
Even with the length, I still found myself wanting to keep going. Not at the headlong rush of a real page-turner, but at a deliberate pace, wanting to savor the atmosphere of the world that has been created. Which is the real accomplishment of this book. Ms. Clarke had created a living, breathing world that pulls you in and keeps you wanting more. And, luckily, the ending is such that a sequel is not out of the question.