Monday, November 15, 2010

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

When I first started the challenge I never actually expected the books themselves to present a challenge.

To explain that I need to provide a bit of history about my original experience with the 20th book (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) in the challenge. I picked Susanna Clarke's debut novel up not all that long after it came out. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell took Susanna Clarke a decade to write, and even before it was published it was eagerly anticipated due to some highly acclaimed short stories set in the same world, that she had already published. People fell over themselves to praise Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and give it awards. I decided to see what all the fuss was about, I'd also read a couple of similarly themed novels and quite enjoyed them. I hated the book, I found it tedious and poorly edited. I only forced myself to complete it because I was convinced that there must be something about it I was missing.

Funnily enough my reaction this time was somewhat different. I decided to read it a little differently. It's a huge book, it weighs in at about anywhere from 800 - 1,000 pages depending on what edition you're reading. Although this is pretty standard length for what is often referred to as Big Fat Fantasy, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell seemed somehow bigger. I decided to break it into 3 books, treating each part as a separate book, and then breaking in between them. This seemed to work, it kept the work a lot fresher for me. I found myself actually enjoying the experience. For me the book still has a few flaws and is not the masterpiece that others have hailed it as. It's in need of a ruthless editor, the narrative could have quite easily lost 100 pages or so and not suffered as a result, in fact it may have been improved by the cutting. The two main characters: Strange and Norrell, are not at all likeable protagonists, in fact Gilbert Norrell seems to delight in being unlikeable, makes it hard to develop any real empathy for either of them. At times there was a distinct lack of focus. Other readers have pointed to the aped Regency style of the book (words such as show and choose are deliberately miss spelled in some sort of homage to Jane Austen and her contemporaries) as a strength, I found it gimmicky, annoying and completely unnecessary. However what I did find myself appreciating was Clarke's worldbuilding. She hadn't just changed something about the world that we knew, as I find many alternate fiction writers do, and forgotten to change other things to fit with her vision, she added working magic into Regency England and as a result completely changed the course of British history, it was an extraordinary achievement. It's done mostly via the extensive footnotes, I know others have confessed to being exasperated by the footnotes, having read a lot of Terry Pratchett, they were something I was used to and I felt they gave the story a real touch of authenticity.

The story is relatively loose and occasionally meanders. It mostly concerns the attempts of two magicians: the prickly Gilbert Norrell and the younger and far more approachable Jonathan Strange to prove whose version of magic is the definitive one and to destroy each other in the process. Hanging over it all is the presence of the greatest of all English magicians, the legendary John Uskglass, also known as the Raven King.

For anyone who liked the concept and wanted to explore similarly themed works, which tend to be more accessible I'd recommend: Naomi Novik's Temeraire series (take Patrick O'Brien and add dragons) and the Cecelia and Kate series by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, there are 3 of those (Sorcery & Cecelia, The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician), the 1st and 3rd are told in epistle form and the middle book is in the form of the diaries kept by cousins Cecelia and Kate.

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