Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004) 1006 p.

I’m going to start this review with a terrible analogy and say that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a successful version of Temeraire. Temeraire, as you will recall, was a book I read last year that created an alternate-history Napoleonic era with a fantasy twist, and was an abysmal failure. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell shares many of Temeraire‘s characteristics – Napoleonic fantasy, semi-satirical Austenian writing style, fundamental Englishness – but, unlike Temeraire, it employs them far more skillfully and is a resounding success.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is based in an alternate timeline in which magic did once exist, but petered out in the early 1600s. Now, in 1806, it is a purely theoretical subject, pursued by old men as not much more than a hobby. This is until the discovery of Gilbert Norrell, a reclusive Yorkshire man who claims to be a practical magician, and who impresses disbelievers by making the statues in the Cathedral of York to come to life and speak for a single day. He is soon rushed off to London to use his magic to assist in the struggle against Napoleon.

Norrell reigns as the only main character for a few hundred pages before being sidelined by Jonathan Strange, the hip young magician who is cooler than him in every way; the Riggs to his Murtaugh, if you will. While much of the novel is dedicated to the Napoleonic Wars – Strange fights in the Peninsula and is present at Waterloo – the larger scope is dedicated to the rivalry between the two men, and the consequences of their meddling with forces they do not understand. Norrell makes a grievous error early in the book which has extensive repercussions and lends an air of horror to the entire narrative, in a way that reminded me very much of Ged’s arrogant mistake in A Wizard of Earthsea.

The fictional world of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a fascinating one, and easily the novel’s greatest strength. England exists alongside a fairy realm, and fairies are an integral part of magic and greatly featured throughout the book. Forget gossamer wings and the colour pink; these fairies live in ruined castles and realms of perpetual night, and are renowned for their cruelty. Clarke’s explanation is that while humans are weak in magic and strong in reason, fairies are strong in magic but weak in reason – by human standards, they are barely sane. They reminded me very heavily of the elves in Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies; mythological creatures harking back to Celtic mythology and the Grimm fairytales, a time when everything that shifted in the darkness beyond your campfire was terrifying, before contemporary culture re-imagined them as sweet, benevolent creatures of kindness.

Clarke has developed this world with the use of over 200 footnotes that provide background details on the world’s magical history, details on the contents of fictional books, or anecdotes about historical magicians. Often these footnotes are longer than the main text on the page and sometimes tell entirely self-contained stories. One, for example, relates the tale of the foolish John Bloodworth, a magician who naively accepted the services of a fairy called “Buckler,” without bothering to question why they were offered. One day while Bloodworth is away on business, a tall cupboard appears in the kitchen, and Buckler tells Bloodworth’s family members that it is a portal to a place in Faerie where they can learn spells to make their lives easier, and that they can go through and be back “in time for Mass.” Seventeen people enter the cupboard and are never seen again. The footnote ends with this:

Two hundred years later Dr. Martin Pale was journeying through Faerie. At the castle of John Hollyshoes (a very ancient and powerful fairy-prince) he discovered a human child, about seven or eight years old, very pale and starved-looking. She said her name was Anne Bloodworth and she had been in Faerie, she thought, about two weeks. She had been given work to do washing a great pile of dirty pots. She said she had been washing them steadily since she arrived and when she was finished she would go home to see her parents and sisters. She thought she would be finished in a day or two.

While an eerie tale in itself, this footnote provides an example of the fairies’ penchant for kidnapping humans into their realm, which is quite signifcant later in the book; a small example of the masterful foreshadowing Clarke employs throughout. Another part of the backstory I found fascinating was the Raven King, the mysterious and dreaded magician who ruled northern England for three hundred years before disappearing; footnotes speculate on unknown parts of his life, detail sightings of him across the years, and reveal that, constitutionally, the English monarch is merely the regent of northern England, awaiting the Raven King’s return.

At 1006 pages, this is an intimidating tome, and certainly not the kind of novel I would recommend to just anybody. If you have an interest in fantasy and can tolerate (or enjoy, as I do) long-winded writing styles and a slow pace, you should like it. If you dislike the idea of a huge amount of footnotes describing the tiny details of a fictional world (personally, I think it’s heaven) then you should steer clear.

So while this book isn’t for everyone, it is objectively excellent and a staggering achievement for a first-time writer. I look forward to seeing what Clarke comes up with next.