It took me twenty four days to read this book. Twenty four days to read 1006 pages. I don’t know how I feel about that, really. It *is* an average of 40 pages per day, but still. Twenty. Four. Days.
I loved this book. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is an incredibly fresh look at both historical and fantasy fiction. I have never read a book like it, and I doubt I will again.
What Clarke has done, which I find absolutely gobsmackingly brilliant, is to make magicians (actual magic users, not illusionists) seem mundane. To make magicians seem as though they very well could fit into our universe. You see, Clarke has created two types of magicians: theoretical and practical. If someone says that they study magical history, they are a theoretical magician. If someone does this but also tries to emulate the spells that they find during their studies, then these people are practical magicians.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell opens with a group of theoretical magicians bemoaning the fact that magic has left England, at a point in history when the British war effort against Bonaparte would have absolutely benefited from the aid of English magicians. Enter Mr Norrell: the first practical magician to be seen in England in years.
Norrell gains notoriety and in doing so inspires a gentleman named Jonathan Strange to try his hand at magic. Indeed, he becomes Norrell’s student. And so our two magicians are introduced.
Clarke weaves history and fantasy together so seamlessly that sometimes I forgot that I was reading fiction. That is the genius of this book. There is so much depth and history added into the book that its events could plausibly be real. When you close this book and realise it isn’t real, though, that isn’t an enjoyable feeling.
The plot is complex. We have a few different POVs that all seem to be separate until the final two chapters. The consolidation of the stories is beautifully done. But until that moment, there is no way of knowing what will come to pass. I definitely didn’t see it coming.
What impressed me most about this book was its structure. I’m a sucker for an original structure, as you may have noticed if you’ve been following me for a while. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is set out like a Victorian text. There are footnotes. Footnotes! In a work of fiction! Usually when you see footnotes in a book it’s because the publisher needs to explain Shakespeare’s Elizabethan turn of phrase. Again. But Clarke has used them to not only enrich her world, but to make the fantastic seem mundane. She gives us the background of English magic, by introducing us to fictional figureheads in this fictional world that she has created. She has even made up book names, passages from those made up books, and shows when a fictional author has referenced another fictional author. It is wonderful. And Clarke uses the footnotes to explain little phrases that the reader would ordinarily overlook. But Clarke has made sure that the reader understands each and every minute stroke of genius.
>insert literary fangirling noise here<
I will say that the footnotes make the story incredibly dense. You go to the footnote, read the text at the bottom of the page (which sometimes takes up more space on the page than the main story, and often goes for more than one page), and then have to find your place in the main story once again. This may be disorienting for some, but personally it made me feel like I was more involved in the story.
Clarke even uses Victorian spelling. Things like “surprize”, “shew”, and “chuse”. It is marvellous. Nothing puts you smack bang in the middle of a story like the author using the language of that era.
I’m going to cut myself off so I don’t start gushing incoherently about Clarke’s brilliance. So, simply put, this book is a seamless blend of fantasy and history that is one of the most unique books that I have ever read. If you are a fan of historical fiction or fantasy or, indeed, a bit of both, then this is definitely a book you need to read. Especially since the book has been made into a BBC mini series:
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