Book review: Magic, history, legend unite in Strange novel

At the very least, a 782-page novel can hardly be considered light reading. And yet, for whatever reason, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” never loses its charm or sense of humor.

The novel, author Susanna Clarke’s first, was published in September 2004 and has been named as one of the top 10 fiction must-reads for 2004 by the New York Times Book Review.

The book deals largely with what Clarke has dubbed the “revival of English magic” during the Napoleonic Wars. Clarke’s Regency England is similar in appearance to historical Regency England, yet Clarke’s version is grounded in a strong magical tradition originally introduced by a mythical figure known as The Raven King.

According to legend, the Raven King ruled a section of North England from the 11th to the 14th century, which marked a period of unparalleled magical progress in England. However, sometime in the 16th century, English magic began to dissipate and vanish until, by the time of Mad King George, the only magicians in the entire country were “theoretical” or charlatans.

Most of this background is told gradually throughout all 782 pages in footnote form. At first glance, the footnotes may seem a bit like overkill, but most of the information turns out to be necessary for the story’s outcome to make sense. In the end, Clarke probably saved a few dozen trees by adding footnotes instead of sticking the information directly into the story as dialogue or some other contrived method of inserting pertinent background. Clarke is willing to fill her footnotes with color as well as substance, which adds some fun to the section.

The story itself opens in 1806 with Mr. Norrell’s quest to revive magical tradition in England. Mr. Norrell and his pupil and later rival, Jonathan Strange, are the two primary characters in the novel, and they end up forming two opposite poles of what it means to be an English magician.

At the very least, they are always entertaining, particularly when they’re squabbling. The lengths each goes to in order to thwart the other makes for a delightful read. And because they’re both magicians, some of their methods are quite fantastical and over-the-top.

Genuine historical figures are sprinkled here and there as a reminder that not the entire story is fictionalized. Lord Byron, Mad King George and, most significantly, the Duke of Wellington make important appearances. Clarke does a fine job of clarifying unexplainable historic events and weaving them in with her alternate magical reality. Lord Byron’s sudden and unexpected death from a chill in 1821, for example, turns out to be the outcome of a magical practical joke; and the French loss at Quatre Bras in Belgium during the second Napoleonic war, previously unexplained, is actually the result of Jonathan Strange’s tinkering with the Belgian highway system, which accidentally prevented 20,000 French reinforcements from reaching the lines in time to prevent the English victory.

While the main plot is fun, the complexity of the secondary plots and characters are really the novel’s masterpiece. A number of key characters appear throughout the story, embroiled in problems of their own, and their importance to Strange and Norrell comes to light gradually, and it isn’t until the story’s climax at the end that the whole plot weaves itself together.

The novel is formed of smaller stories, all of which contain characters that know and interact with each other. Clarke spends the first 600 of her 782 pages in a sort-of glorified plot development for the final, climactic 182 pages.

Still, the novel never sinks to plodding pace that simple plot-development often leads to some of the best and most impressive scenes in the novel, and most of it is absolutely necessary for the emotional climax. Even the footnotes are significant, at least for the most part, as most of the Raven King legends are explained in size eight font at the bottom of the page.

All in all, despite its volume, Susannah Clarke has created a magical universe that is at least as much fun as Harry Potter and, in many ways, much more sophisticated. “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” is unlikely to inspire the fanaticism that Harry Potter has, but it is likely to be around for quite some time and has the potential to become one of the great modern fantasy novels.

Its only real drawback is that 782 pages make the book non-portable and awkward. Unless you have the wrists of a football quarterback, it’s impossible to read it lying-down.

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