What kind of magic can make a nearly 800-page novel seem too short? Whatever it is, debut author Susanna Clarke is possessed by it, and her astonished readers will surely hope she never recovers. Her epic history of an alternative, magical England is so beautifully realized that not one of the many enchantments Clarke chronicles in the book could ever be as potent or as quickening as her own magnificent narrative.
It is 1806, and Gilbert Norrell is the only true magician in England. He sets out to restore the practice of magic to a nation that has not seen it for more than 300 years. But there is an odd and fateful twist to Norrell's character: he is as scholarly and insufferably pedantic as he is gifted. In short, Norrell is the most boring and unmagical person imaginable. This is Clarke's masterstroke, the necessary touch of ordinary candleshine in the midst of all the uncanny fairy light she dispenses.
Enter Jonathan Strange, the intuitive magician—the natural—who can improvise in a flash what Norrell has gleaned from long study. Strange becomes Norrell's pupil, but soon the tension between their styles mounts to a breaking point. The two men realize that they have a fundamental disagreement about how to approach the mysterious and terrifying sources of English magic, in the face of which even Albus Dumbledore might find himself unnerved.
Just as Norrell and Strange apprentice themselves to a Golden Age of medieval magicians, Clarke tethers her craft to the great 19th-century English masters of the novel, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. The book offers not only an Austen-like inquiry into the fine human line between ridiculous flaw and serious consequence, but also a Dickensian flow of language in which a comical surplus of detail rings at last with certain and inevitable significance.
This elixir of literary influences gives the story its delightful texture. But there is so much more to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell—an energy buckling and straining at the edges of the book in sheer imaginative overflow, just as the realm of Faerie buckles and strains beyond the edges of England's green fields, beckoning us down the overgrown path and through the dark wood.
Thus it happens that a novel of nearly 800 pages seems far too short. This is the strangest—and, as we gratefully come to understand, the "norrellest"—magic a book lover could wish for.
Michael Alec Rose is an associate professor at Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music. Copyright 2004 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2004 July #1
Rival magicians square off to display and match their powers in an extravagant historical fantasy being published simultaneously in several countries, to be marketed as Harry Potter for adults.But English author Clarke's spectacular debut is something far richer than Potter: an absorbing tale of vaulting ambition and mortal conflict steeped in folklore and legend, enlivened by subtle characterizations and a wittily congenial omniscient authorial presence. The agreeably convoluted plot takes off with a meeting in of "gentleman-magicians" in Yorkshire in 1806, the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The participants' scholarly interests are encouraged by a prophecy "that one day magic would be restored to England by two magicians" and would subsequently be stimulated by the coming to national prominence of Gilbert Norrell, a fussy pedant inclined to burrow among his countless books of quaint and curious lore, and by dashing, moody Jonathan Strange, successfully employed by Lord Wellington to defeat French forces by magical means. Much happens. A nobleman's dead wife is revived but languishes in a half-unreal realm called "Lost-hope"-as does Stephen Black, the same nobleman's black butler, enigmatically assured by a nameless "gentleman with thistle-down hair" that he (Stephen) is a monarch in exile. Clarke sprinkles her radiantly readable text with faux-scholarly (and often hilarious) footnotes while building an elaborate plot that takes Strange through military glory, unsuccessful attempts to cure England's mad king, travel to Venice and a meeting with Lord Byron, and on a perilous pursuit of the fabled Raven King, former ruler of England, into the world of Faerie, and Hell ("The only magician to defeat Death !"). There's nothing in Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, or any of their peers that surpasses the power with which Clarke evokes this fabulous figure's tangled "history." The climax, in which Strange and Norrell conspire to summon the King, arrives-for all the book's enormous length-all too soon.An instant classic, one of the finest fantasies ever written.$200,000 ad/promo; author tour. Agent: Giles Gordon/Curtis Brown UK Copyright Kirkus 2004 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Journal BookSmack
Clarke's debut is also a generous and unexpected novel, one that is equally portentous and provides readers with a similar sense of wonderment. While darker than The Night Circus (which itself is not sweetness and light), Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell also explores the consequences of two dueling magicians (and is also available in audio, superbly narrated by Simon Prebble). Mr. Norrell is a humorless and judgmental man, wishing to lock the secrets of English magic within his library. Jonathan Strange is a more open, but no less complicated figure, determined to learn magic. The novel traces much of their relationship and rivalry in London and through the campaigns aboard during the Napoleonic War. The story line is complicated by a dangerously powerful being from Faerie and the allusive figure of the Raven King, whose history is given, as is much of English Magic, through a series of footnotes. Like The Night Circus, Clarke's novel is lushly written and languidly paced, building to a conclusion that leaves one going back a few pages to experience it again. Both books also share a similar approach to the details of magic, which are allusively sketched, and a writing style that is at once luminous and crisp. As a result, both books make readers wish that the pages were transparent overlays that would allow us to lift up the corners and peer inside for more. - Neal Wyatt, "RA Crossroads," Booksmack! 10/6/11 (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2004 July #2
The drawing room social comedies of early 19th-century Britain are infused with the powerful forces of English folklore and fantasy in this extraordinary novel of two magicians who attempt to restore English magic in the age of Napoleon. In Clarke's world, gentlemen scholars pore over the magical history of England, which is dominated by the Raven King, a human who mastered magic from the lands of faerie. The study is purely theoretical until Mr. Norrell, a reclusive, mistrustful bookworm, reveals that he is capable of producing magic and becomes the toast of London society, while an impetuous young aristocrat named Jonathan Strange tumbles into the practice, too, and finds himself quickly mastering it. Though irritated by the reticent Norrell, Strange becomes the magician's first pupil, and the British government is soon using their skills. Mr. Strange serves under Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars (in a series of wonderful historical scenes), but afterward the younger magician finds himself unable to accept Norrell's restrictive views of magic's proper place and sets out to create a new age of magic by himself. Clarke manages to portray magic as both a believably complex and tedious labor, and an eerie world of signs and wonders where every object may have secret meaning. London politics and talking stones are portrayed with equal realism and seem indisputably part of the same England, as signs indicate that the Raven King may return. The chock-full, old-fashioned narrative (supplemented with deft footnotes to fill in the ignorant reader on incidents in magical history) may seem a bit stiff and mannered at first, but immersion in the mesmerizing story reveals its intimacy, humor and insight, and will enchant readers of fantasy and literary fiction alike. Agent, Jonny Geller. (Oct.) Forecast: A massive push by Bloomsbury has made this one of the most anticipated novels of the season. It's convenient to pigeonhole it as Harry Potter for grownups-and grown-up readers of J.K. Rowling will enjoy it-but its deep grounding in history gives it gravitas as well as readability. 200,000 first printing; rights sold in 14 countries. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2005 January
Adult/High School-This delightful first novel exerts a strong and seductive pull on readers who might otherwise balk at its length. Like Philip Pullman's work, it is dark, deep, and challenging. It compares dead-on with Jane Austen's novels, and YAs who have underappreciated her wit may find it delicious when applied to magicians. Clarke even tosses in a bit of Dickens and Hardy-with great characterization, subplots, and a sense of fate bearing down hard on us. At stake is the future of English magic, which has nearly dwindled to all theory by the early 1800s, after centuries of prominence. When the book opens, only the reclusive and jealous Gilbert Norrell is practicing. Enter Jonathan Strange, a natural who has never studied magic formally. Norrell resents, then adopts Strange as a pupil whose growth he insists on controlling until the two come to the impasse that nearly leads them to destroy one another. Strange champions the 12th century's "Raven King" as the greatest magician in English history and hopes to summon him from Faerie, an alternate world. Norrell is determined to erase both from English memory-to hide the fact that he himself made a bargain with a fairy that has cost three people their lives, though their hearts go on dismally beating. Expertly written and imagined, the book is a feast for fans of fantasy, historical novels, or simply fabulously engrossing reads.-Emily Lloyd, formerly at Rehoboth Beach Public Library, DE Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.