From the book jacket: Sophisticated, witty, and ingeniously convincing, Susanna
Clarke's magisterial novel weaves magic into a flawlessly detailed vision of
historical England. She has created a world so thoroughly enchanting that eight
hundred pages leave readers longing for more.
Comment: Set in early 19th century England, this book is historically accurate in almost every way, except for one fundamental difference; in Clarke's world, English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call, but by the early 1800s practical magic has died out, leaving only committees of theoretical magicians. At least, practical magic is believed to have died out until Mr Norrell, a deeply dull, reclusive bookworm who through years of diligent study has taught himself the mysteries of the ancient arts, takes his nose out of his books long enough to travel to London to offer his services to the government in their fight against Napoleon. There he meets the charismatic Jonathan Strange who becomes his protégé. However, where Mr Norrell sees magic as something to be used cautiously with careful control, Strange is attracted to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, and becomes fascinated with the shadowy figure of the Raven King, who once ruled both the kingdoms of England and of Faerie.
What kept me reading was partly an interest in the story itself, but mainly a fascination as to whether Clarke would be able to maintain the credibility of her world through to the end - she can. However, I have to say that I never quite found myself lost in the book, I always felt a little as if I was looking in from the outside.
A wide range of reviewers have pitched in with opinions on this one. The only negative review, as such, is from The New Yorker who says, 'Clarkes ability to construct a fully imagined worldmuch of it explained in long, witty footnotesis impressive, and there are some suspenseful moments. But her attempt to graft a fantasy narrative onto such historical realities as the Battle of Waterloo is more often awkward than clever, and the period dialogue is simply twee. Worse, the tension between the forces of good and evilcrucial in any magical taleis surprisingly slack; the arch-villain is a cartoonish fop whose petulant misdeeds lack menace.' Most reviewers are very positive, for example, Michael Dirda, writing in The Washington Post says, 'Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell may or may not be the finest English fantasy of the past 70 years. But it is still magnificent and original, and that should be enough for any of us. Right now all we really need to do is open to chapter one and start reading, with mounting excitement: "Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. . . ."
This review is from the September 14, 2005 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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