Thursday, 25 April 2013

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

 Note: This was written back in January. I'm not sick right now.

Books to avoid when you're feverish:

Infinite Jest

And the part of this book when Strange starts to toy with madness - which, of course, was the part I was at when I was stricken down with the flu. I'm recuperating now, but I still can't sit upright under my own steam for more than a couple of minutes, which would explain why I'm trying to write this on my lap on the couch while reclining back so I don't get dizzy. This virus sucks.

Anyway, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I'm at a tiny bit of a loss when it comes to what to write about this one. I enjoyed it quite a lot, without ever quite loving it. I would recommend it, but it's not quite one of those books that I buttonhole strangers on the street to tell them about (and that gets me some odd looks, let me tell you.)

Let's see if I can break that down a little. I loved the footnotes, but I'm a sucker for footnotes. So much better than endnotes. Why don't we have a movement back towards footnotes in all academic books again? With the advent of computers, they aren't the same problem with typesetting they used to be. In this case, the footnotes were used to wonderful effect, as they enriched the story of magic in the world in lovely ways. I loved the fairy stories that cropped up in them, and gave so much texture to England-as-it-was.

Mr. Norrell is England's only practical magician - and he'd like to keep it that way, thank you very much, wary of the uses of magic, and its wilder possibilities. He wants to keep it carefully circumscribed, completely under his own control.

Enter Jonathan Strange, a self-taught magician of extraordinary creativity, who wants nothing more than to explore every dangerous path and publish his findings for all to see. As these two work together, quarrel, and become opposed, magic in England continues to grow.

And yet, they never hate each other - they just can't agree. Childermass, Norrell's servant, tries to strike a middle path, believing neither extreme is the way to go.

But beyond the magicians and their endeavours for self and country, there is the world of the Fae, and it is wild and dangerous and capricious and amoral. Norrell's first piece of major magic needed faerie help, and failed to understand the price. As a result, several innocents are sentenced to live with the fairy in his home of Lost Hope. This comes at a great personal price for one of the magicians. Neither realizes the strength of the enmity the fairy bears them.

I mostly very much enjoyed this book, but there were a few occasions when the characters were unacceptably dense about things they should have been paying attention to. For instance, when a fairy gives you a little finger, and then the next night, at the fairy's house, you see someone missing a little finger, the proper response is not "it's probably a coincidence."

I appreciated that the magicians did not understand the fairies, or their motives, but that particular moment irritated me beyond belief. Find something else they could have believably misinterpreted, not this moment that requires me to believe that Strange has suddenly entirely lost his ability to put one and one together and make two.

But the world that Clarke creates is both familiar and strange, and uses legends of the fae in marvellous ways, as well as a world that is in the process of having its base assumptions thrown up in the air, and the reactions people have to that, from horror to glee. And underneath it all, it's a story of a knotty friendship, with betrayals, assistance, and two characters that need each other, although they may not know it.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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