By Susanna Clarke
Published by Tor Books
on August 1, 2006
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.
English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call; they could command winds, mountains, and woods. But by the early 1800s they have long since lost the ability to perform magic. They can only write long, dull papers about it, while fairy servants are nothing but a fading memory.
But at Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire, the rich, reclusive Mr Norrell has assembled a wonderful library of lost and forgotten books from England's magical past and regained some of the powers of England's magicians. He goes to London and raises a beautiful young woman from the dead. Soon he is lending his help to the government in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte, creating ghostly fleets of rain-ships to confuse and alarm the French.
All goes well until a rival magician appears. Jonathan Strange is handsome, charming, and talkative-the very opposite of Mr Norrell. Strange thinks nothing of enduring the rigors of campaigning with Wellington's army and doing magic on battlefields. Astonished to find another practicing magician, Mr Norrell accepts Strange as a pupil. But it soon becomes clear that their ideas of what English magic ought to be are very different. For Mr Norrell, their power is something to be cautiously controlled, while Jonathan Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic. He becomes fascinated by the ancient, shadowy figure of the Raven King, a child taken by fairies who became king of both England and Faerie, and the most legendary magician of all. Eventually Strange's heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens to destroy not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear.
This was such an ‘almost’ book for me. I almost loved it! I really wanted to love it. And the parts that I enjoyed and thought were well done and characters I was interested in were excellent (I loved the magic and the lore; I thought Childermass, Stephen Black, and Vinculus were the most interesting characters; the last section of the book finally felt like it was getting somewhere) but those did not outweigh the parts that I didn’t enjoy (the footnotes; the length; the lack of a decent female character and overwhelming focus on white men; the pacing).
The story was so interesting and intriguing at times, and there are specific moments that I loved that will stick with me, but it was so boring and slow at other times. And perhaps because of the length and glacial pace, I just couldn’t get into it. And it’s really difficult for me to love a book this long, that takes this much of my reading time and commitment, when I don’t feel emotionally invested.
Despite my occasional boredom, I was super interested in seeing how it ended, and I am pleased that I stuck with it and finished. I am very interested in checking out the television adaptation, but this was a really uneven read for me.