In my opinion, simply stated, with no reservation what so ever, the best novel published in 2004. The best Fantasy novel? Well, yes, but also, the best fictional novel, bar none. Susanna Clarke’s debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, is so impressive that it immediately bypasses comparisons to the bulk of contemporary fantasy mired in mediocrity and should be included in discussions pertaining to other recent efforts in fantasy that have rightfully elicited conversations and accolades of modern classics like of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
Gaiman himself says of the novel.
“Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years.” Neil Gaiman
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was released last year amidst incredible pre-release hype generally unusual in fantasy at that level. This “hype” was generated behind the novel by reports of it being the next Harry Potter, a notion that for some reason still perpetuated even after publication. Besides the irrelevant and obvious similarities, both Rowling and Clarke are English, they are published by the same publisher, and both have London as a setting in their works, I simply see absolutely no validity to the comparisons from a thematic sense, nor in scope, nor in terms of their writing, nor are the novels even targeting the same audience. This is no intentional slight to Rowling, or her work, which I also admire, but merely the truth. I must admit, generally when a novel get this type of acclaim pre-releases I have been disappointed, the most recent prior such example I can point out would be the novel Eragon, which approaches levels of unoriginality and atrocious prose that would make one lose all faith in pre-release reviews. I purchased Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell with very little expectations; save to be disappointed… I could not have been more wrong.
Susanna Clarke chooses the dawn of the 19th century England as her setting for the novel, during a time where magic has all but disappeared, and centers on the efforts of at the time perhaps the greatest living magician left Mr. Norrell and his efforts to restore English magic, and bring it back to the forefront of society. He later meets the younger Jonathan Strange and takes him on as an apprentice and they act in unison in bringing back the prosperity of magic. Clarke’s description and use of magic is absolutely breathtaking and imaginative, its workings and origins well documented throughout the novel in a series of detailed, informative footnotes, that accomplish both that and relaying numerous anecdotes revealing a sprawling back history. The land of Faire, which co-exists with London proper, is depicted as a location sense of wonder, but the same wonderfully detailed and imaginative yet still remaining mysterious and magical, the domain of the Jon Uskglass the all powerful magician-king who makes one of the most awe inspiring entrances in recent memory. Clarke’s depiction of magic and its use is one of the strongest such examples I have ever read in fantasy.
Magic is not the only element Clarke succeeds in depicting in the novel. Clarke’s recreation of the Regency era of England is exemplary. Not only does she not neglect the occurrences of the time such as the Napoleonic War, but her depiction of the architecture, the fashion of the time, and social nuances transports readers back into time. Her prose, enhances the experience, carefully researched, but not overdone, as to turn the novels feel into a historical recant, but finds a fine balance weaving the story of Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange and in doing so rewriting a fabulous history that includes yet another delightful element that absolutely enhances the novel and that is Clarke’s smart choices in appearances of historical figures such as Lord Byron (which is rather ingenious as Strange is decidedly a Byronic character, and even in the footnotes Clarke plays on this saying Byron wrote a poem about Strange, later in life), who befriends Strange in Venice, The Duke of Wellington whom Strange aids at Waterloo, and King George whose spats of insanity are chronicled and mischievously explained, and she doesn’t merely use Byron or Wellington as cameos as some authors tend to, but boldly gives them scenes of merit.
Other characters that make up one of the most unique and gratifying casts include the likes of Childermass, Norrell’s mysterious, tarot reading assistant, Steven a butler who is befriended by a creature of faire “The man with the thistled down hair” serves as our window into the social structure, and the conversations between the two offer some of the most notable sequences of the novel. There is also Vinculus, a street magician whose role in the novel as it progresses is incredibly satisfying and unpredictable. There are a myriad more but the one I found most engaging, is the most ambiguous, and that is the Raven King, the aforementioned John Uskglass.
Uskglass, exists in the novel at same time both as myth and absolute reality and is a topic of the conflict in views of Norrell and Strange. Norrell in effect, and simply stated is a conservative, and Strange a liberal in their views of magic. Norrell fears and denounces the Raven King, wishing for his impact to be forgotten, Strange believes this foolhardy and limited in thinking.
This is only one of examples of the contrasts between the characters that make for an engaging read. Norrell is old, cautious, and can be described as anti-social, alone, Norrell is young, comely, ambitious, and married. This causes for a splitting of partnership and the birth of two different thoughts of magic.
Negatives? Well some will say that the novel is a bit arduous in the beginning. An observation I can agree with on some levels, however I think it necessary. Clarke shows us a country with no magic, and I think uses portions of the novel to aptly describe a setting, before the introduction of magic back into society, in terms of the perceptions of magic relevant to the society at the time. Also, the beginning portion of the novel does not take place in London but in Yorkshire, and Clarke takes the time to differentiate the two distinctly different settings, and actually spends time depicting Norrell’s transition to moving to London.
Also any qualms with the pacing of the beginning of the novel are put away after reading the novel, which is gifted with one of the most vivid, and inspiring conclusions I have read in a novel, putting Norrell and Strange’s debate of Uskglass in ultimate perspective.
I also don’t recommend this novel to those that are exclusive fans of hack and slash fantasy novels this is simply not your element. In saying this I am not saying the novel is devoid of action, but it is not central in the novel. The action scenes that are included are ones of original spells both terrible and magnificent, particularly well used by Strange aiding Wellington. This novels strength is the superior depiction of setting, remarkably apt prose, and what I think is a landmark representation of magic and its use. Honestly most negatives I hear about this novel are of the worst variety, and that is of the type one find when something achieves a standard so high that people just desire to find something negative about it, just to feel at ease about their own personal favorites.
This is one of the best Fantasy novels I have ever read, which is impressive, as although there are more novels in setting planned by Clarke, it certainly is a stand-alone novel. Call it want you want, a modern masterpiece in speculative fiction, The Time magazine Fiction Book of the Year, a work of genius, all of them are apt. This is what today’s fantasy should be, and is, at the highest level.