Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke: Ancient British magic
Updated: Jan 4
Overall rating: 9.5/10
Quality of writing: 9.5/10
Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): some
Age level: 14 and up
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In the year 1806, England is trapped in a costly war with Napoleon, and the last practicing magicians vanished from England hundreds of years ago. But one magician still remains: cautious and fussy Mr. Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey, who demonstrates his powers to the nation by causing a cathedral-full of statues to come to life. Excited rumors spread as Norrell performs other feats, including raising a beautiful young lady from the dead and creating phantom ships to terrify the French navy. Yet Norrell is suddenly challenged by another magician: brilliant and handsome Jonathan Strange, whom Norrell reluctantly accepts as a pupil. Strange travels to Europe to fight for England, still learning magic, but gradually becomes obsessed with legends of the founder of English magic: the mysterious Raven King. With a widening rift developing between Strange and Norrell and the consequences of the magicians’ earlier actions returning to haunt them, this book’s witty and complex plot provides an otherworldly look into Clarke’s view of what British history might have been.
The plot-threads of this book are many: the first section revolves around Mr. Norrell’s dealings with other British “magicians” and his demonstrations of magical skill, while the second part mostly follows Jonathan Strange’s exploits in England and Europe. The war between France and England is a major conflict, but several others are almost as important, including the dispute between Norrell and Strange themselves. The introduction of the strange and foreign inhabitants of “the Other Lands” or “Faery” further complicates the action, as the main antagonist of the book is actually a fairy himself, and doesn’t even come from England (the primary setting). A third protagonist is also introduced late in the book: Stephen, a black servant who has been bewitched by fairy magic. While it’s mostly impossible to pick out a single main plot that remains consistent over the course of the book, the magicians’ opposition with this particular fairy (“the man with the thistledown hair”) emerges in the second half of the book as the most important of its many conflicts, and seems to be the most prominent. Overall, this book’s multifold plotlines and rather complicated structure earn it a 7/10 on plot.
Clarke incorporates quite a large cast of characters into her setting (so large, in fact, that some readers might have trouble keeping up with them all). Her characters are realistic and dryly humorous, and (in my mind) similar to some of Dickens’. Furthermore, her characters are an odd mix of good intentions and pragmatism—it should be noted that the protagonists largely lack any distinguishable “moral compass” (see Concerning content below). “Morally grey” is the phrase that comes to mind for describing them, although one must admit that this is a realistic depiction of actual people (no one is perfect, after all). Clarke’s characters can also be mysterious and dark at times, but balance this with frequent instances of subtle and understated humor. (“Of all the tiresome situations in the world, thought the Prince Regent, the most tiresome was to rise from one’s bed in a state of uncertainty as to whether or not one was King of Great Britain.” etc.). Overall, the characters in this book are realistic, mysterious, and understatedly humorous.
This book is not a particularly easy read, due to its complicated plot, large cast of characters, and occasionally oblique style. It’s also quite lengthy—some 782 pages, in the edition I own . Clarke also incorporates an intricate backstory dealing with the history of magic in England, and often sidetracks into explanatory stories that can have little bearing on the main story (I personally enjoy them—they’re often quite entertaining and showcase her skill as a storyteller—but they could be confusing for some.) Furthermore, the characters (particularly those from “the Other Lands”) can be somewhat oblique in their diction, which might also make following what they’re saying difficult. Finally, the amount of detail Clarke incorporates into her setting (an alternate history of England and Europe) may make keeping track of it all a bit tricky, especially considering her fictitious history goes back several hundred years, with historical figures and events to match. Overall, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is not recommended for beginning readers, but older readers may enjoy its complex plot and detail. (6/10)
Quality of writing
Clarke’s writing in this book is exceptional, not only because of the level of consistent detail she includes, but also because Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell successfully assimilates real historical figures such as the Duke of Wellington, George III, and Napoleon into its fabric of fictional history. With this blending of real history and Clarke’s own invention, the world in which this book is set is as believable as real life, yet incorporates fantastic elements such as magic and outlandish creatures. These elements all combine to produce an unprecedented story that is unique within its genre (it’s incidentally not entirely obvious what genre this book belongs to, as it seems to bridge multiple genres).
Clarke’s use of language is also quite impressive, setting an almost Dickensian tone at times as she describes British society in her setting. Her use of humor is subtle and dry, and recurs frequently throughout the book. In addition, a particularly interesting feature of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is Clarke’s use of extensive footnotes, which often contain entire short stories and extend across multiple pages. Overall, Clarke’s writing is unique and complex and incorporates many elements not found in other books. (9.5/10)
While the writing in this book is quite excellent, it does admittedly contain some content that readers should be advised of. Sexual content and language are referenced, although mainly only in passing: there is one instance in which a character is called a “whoreson” and characters mention people being seduced on a couple occasions. In addition, there are a few notable graphic scenes, particularly one in which a group of corpses (“not very mutilated,” as one character says) are revivified by magic, and another in which a character murders another character by shooting him in the head. These scenes are obviously not suitable for younger readers, but in my mind, the other positive elements of this book still make it worth reading for older readers who can handle such scenes. To conclude: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell contains some content that is definitely deserving of careful consideration, but is still worth reading on account of its overall well-written style and plot.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell incorporates a certain amount of concerning content, along with a complex plot and large cast of characters. Furthermore, Clarke’s fictional-historical setting is rich with detail that could prove confusing for younger or inexperienced readers, and the book itself is quite long (see above). Overall, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is recommended for readers age 14 and up.