Author: Susanna Clarke
Rating: 2 Stars
Dates read: 17 Feb 19 – 28 Mar 19
Publication date: 08 Sep 04
Genre(s): Fantasy, Alternate History
The year is 1806, England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains, the reclusive Mr Norrell, whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrel. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms that between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.
It has taken me a while to write this because the book itself took a while to read and even longer to get over. I had eagerly awaiting reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It is a favourite of many of my favourite authors, and is a book that sounded like it should have been right up my street. The added bonus of it being narrated by Simon Prebble, one of my faves, made it a logical book to sit and listen to in my car. It fell so short of what I hoped it would be.
I want to start by saying that I think my view on this book has definitely been tainted by personal reading tastes. Although written and published in the early noughties, the author has successfully achieved a Dickensian feel for her writing. I can appreciate that the storytelling and the literary style is impressive, but it isn’t a writing style that works for me so it left me feeling like I was on the back foot in terms of enjoyment from the very beginning.
In a similar way to the writing style being something I didn’t expect it to be, it was the same with the narrative. I was of the understanding that the booking was about magic and magicians, and inferred action and excitement. This, again, was a shortcoming and inference of my own doing, but it meant that the story that was told, the characters portrayed, and overall narrative style was far from the mark that I was expecting, and not in a good way. The story felt very stately and gentlemanly, and lacked the action I am used to in the majority of YA and adult fantasy books I have read. I do have to applaud the detail, complexity, and internal logic of the author’s world. It was flawless execution of such a tale, it just wasn’t my cup of tea.
I found the characters to be quite detestable. I am not sure if that was the point of the story and their traits and personalities, but I didn’t enjoy reading about them or experiencing their stories. I find that disliking a character can sometimes be an experience that makes the enjoyment of a story greater but it really wasn’t the case in this instance. I just didn’t like Strange, or Norrell, or anyone they interacted with. They were regularly exhibiting the worst traits of the upper classes and had frankly awful interactions with governments and officials that fitted with the story but weren’t ones I wanted to experience.
One section I did enjoy surrounded Strange’s time in Europe. His interactions in the war, affecting the road qualities and pathways, and weather for the troops. It changed the dynamic of the battles being fought and ultimately the war, and was a really interesting use of magic in a tangible and historical setting, and wasn’t like anything I had read before.
Overall I completely admit to finishing this book to say I had finished it. I really dislike DNF-ing a book. I am terrified I will miss out on something if I finish it early, and just kept hoping it would pick up. I wouldn’t say it was a bad book, despite a negative review. I could feel the quality throughout the novel, it just wasn’t a book for me.