Magic used to be really big in the UK, but it has been slowly disappearing for a while and at the beginning of the 19th century, it is totally gone: now magicians are occupied with theoretically studying magic rather than actively practising it. But then Mr Norrell turns up out of nowhere and claims to be a practical magician – and then goes on to prove it. For a while, he remains the only magician in the country, just the way Norrell likes it, until Jonathan Strange becomes his apprentice. But practical magic is not the only thing that returns to England: the roads to faerie are opened up as well, and the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair starts to meddle in the affairs of humans again.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was one of the books that I had been meaning to read forever (basically since it came out) but I kind of never got around to. With the miniseries based on it, I finally got the motivational kick in the butt I needed to read it before the series came out – and now I’m a little angry at myself that I didn’t read it earlier and discovered just how good it was all those years ago already.
I’m usually not so much into historical fiction and alternate histories*, but I absolutely loved this book here. Mostly because Susanna Clarke created fascinating, unusual and extremely flawed characters in both Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I liked and didn’t like them both almost equally, but whether I liked them or not, I always wanted to know what was happening with them.
Since they are the protagonists, the focus is mostly on them. But the characters around them are equally wonderful and more often than not, they are a lot more likeable and sensible than those two protagonists. And with that, Clarke manages not only to make her book richer, she underlays a lot of social criticism in it as well, especially in the treatment of Stephen Black and pretty much all of the women, but also the people from the lower classes like Vinculus and Childermass (speaking of which, apparently a sequel focusing on those two is in the works). They are all at least equally smart as our two noble, rich, white, male protagonists, and some are even quite magical, but barely anbody hears them or pays much attention to them.
But apart from great characters and socal criticism, the novel is just really funny. There are anecdotes and jokes in the text that make one laugh, but Clarke is also of the school of awesome and often humorous footnotes and it’s amazing.
The book is long, but it never feels long. And even after 1000 pages, I wouldn’t have minded reading on and finding out what further happened to all of those people.
*I just don’t know enough about history to really appreciate the changes and plays on history in the alternate stories; and all those mostly romanticising views on ye olden times that have to somehow transplant modern sensibilities into those times or risk alienating everybody annoy me – much better to deal with literature from that time directly where at least you can cite historical context for misogyny, sexism, racism and various other -isms.