I rate it: 8/10
Six Word Summary: Magic is Strange. Nor,-relly Strange!
I’ll be honest with you, there is a good chance that you will not like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell unless your taste in reading has at least one of the following characteristics, arranged in descending order of relevance:
1. A love for magic. Not merely wand waving, spells, and potions, but old, obscure, dangerous magic.
2. A fascination about imagined, fantasy-based universes rich in detail about history and society, much like Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
3. An interest in England of the very early 19th century, and a respect for the literature of that time.
4. An unquenchable hankering for trivia about the fictional people, places, and events that you read about.
5. No truck with footnotes that go on and on and sometimes take up whole pages.
6. An appreciation of dry, almost chewy British humour, and of characters that are complex, three dimensional, and very gray.
If you found yourself nodding to even one of the six points above, you should at least try grappling with this monster sized book. Chances are, you’ll like it. If, however, you are one of the tiny subset of people whose tastes match every one of the points, congratulations. You have found the book you have always dreamt of. Also, high-five!
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a sort of alternate historical fiction. In this universe, magic is real, and it has been a part of England’ history. But now, in the 19th century, it has almost vanished from the world. Thousand of respectable scholars across the country call themselves magicians, but they merely study magic as a historian studies history. Not one of them can do even a bit of magic, and they loudly declaim practical magic to be as impossible as it is disreputable. That is, till Gilbert Norrell marches out of the woodwork and stuns them all by making all the statues in the local cathedral speak.
So Mr. Norrell is the only practical magician in England, and he jealously guards and strengthens his position, till he finally finds a worthy student in Jonathan Strange. But Strange and Norrell are as different from each other as cheese and fungus.Will their friendship survive their disagreements? Will they be able to save and protect innocent Londoners from the dark forces that Mr. Norrell has inadvertently unleashed in his search for power? And which of them will be the one to bring magic back to England?
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell pretends to be a book written back in the 1800s, complete with archaic spellings like shew and chuse, and the spidery, cozy style of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. Not that there is a lot of resemblance with either authors, just a faint familiarity, like that feeling of being transported back to that era when ladies were ladies, cars were hansoms, and street lights were frigging gas lamps.
Also, the book is very long. It is 800 pages of tightly packed, tiny fonted text, occasional illustrations that look beautifully like woodcut, and innumerable footnotes that veer off with a story about an ancient magician or a place or a book, all made up of course, and all extremely interesting. It took me 2 weeks to read, me, who finished Stephen King’s Under the Dome in 2 days. But if you are one of the subset of six, like me, 800 pages and two weeks will be two short for you.
Huge as it is, you would expect the book to get dull or boring at places. It doesn’t, but it does get weirder and weirder, as Strange explores dark corridors of magic that had been abandoned centuries ago. The magic is not like the wizardry of Harry Potter’s universe. It is old, mysterious, and often unknowable, and Susanna Clarke is purposefully vague, she does not attempt to educate us about stuff we probably wouldn’t understand.
Characters, particularly the two magicians, are drawn amazingly well, and they stay consistent to character despite changing and developing throughout the book.
But you ask me what my absolute favorite thing about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is, I’ll have to say the story of the Raven King. Susannah Clarke creates such a mystical, enigmatic, yet powerfully rooted fable about John Uskglass, magical King of North England, ruler of Faerie, ruler of a kingdom in hell, that I was convinced she based it on actual British mythology. Nope, she made it up, but how I wish, how I wish I could live in a world where The Raven King was real.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is fictional history. Remember how you used to roll your eyes at Harry and his classmates for falling asleep in Binn’s class of History of Magic, because he is getting to read about magic dammit and you would give your teeth to be in that class and read one of his books? Yeah, this is that book you wanted to read.
Read this book at your own peril. You might be so bored that you wont be able to finish it. You might finish it and find it meh. But if you are anything like me, you will find the manna that your fantasy-hungry soul has always been thirsting for, and you will be fangirling (fanpersoning?)about this book to uninterested acquaintances for years to come. Thank me later.
-Amritorupa “That’s so Raven” Kanjilal