BOOK REVIEW: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

written by David Steffen

written by David Steffen

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a 2004 fantasy novel by Susanna Clarke conveyed as a historical account of two magicians interested in the revival of English magic in the 19th century.

English magic has been on the decline for centuries, to the extent that those who call themselves magicians in the 19th century are really no more than scholars studying the history of magic, rather than practicioners of the magic arts themselves. Theories abound as to the cause of the decline, but little is known for sure. There does, however, appear to be one actual practitioner of magic, one Mr. Norrell, who has been known to perform the occasional magical feat, though he is reclusive and secretive.

English magic began with the arrival of the Raven King, a human with ties to the Fairy realm, but he disappeared hundreds of years ago with little explanation.

This novel is an annotated volume telling of the story of Mr. Norrell and of Jonathan Strange (more information about whom is available only late enough in the book that it feels like any mention of him would constitue a spoiler!). Historical footnotes about the significance of various events help educate a layperson on the rich historical background upon which these events rest.

When I started this book, I found it hard to get into the pacing. Throughout the book it was hard to tell where the book was going, was hard to tell which characters I was supposed to be following, and sometimes several chapters would seem to be entirely tangential. I am not one to feel obligated to finish a book if I’m not into it enough. But there was always enough to get me to read a little bit longer, and finally by the middle I was entirely charmed by the style of storytelling and would happily recommend the book. I don’t think everyone would be able to pull this off but Clarke did a splendid job making this feel like a real history, and I felt like I very much knew the characters, and the writing style was very much like books written in that period of time that it did a lot for plausibility of the story. I admit I am a sucker for explanatory footnotes of sometimes excessive quantity and size (perhaps because I always enjoyed them in Pratchett’s work). This book took me a long time to finish, it is not short, and it is at times pretty dry, but I ended up loving it and now I want to watch the tv series based upon it.

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David Steffen

David Steffen is an editor, publisher, and writer. He is probably best known for being co-founder and administrator of The Submission Grinder, a donation-supported tool to help writers track their submissions and find publishers for their work . David also writes articles here and edits the fiction. He is also the editor and publisher of The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List series. David also (sometimes) writes fiction, and you can follow on Twitter for updates on cross-stitch projects and occasionally other things.

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