Still stealing from my previous blog:
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004), Bloomsbury, 782 pp.
I don’t recommend such a long book lightly, since it isn’t something you can read just a few pages of every week or so. When I first got it, I read the first 100+ pages, and then had to do something else for a few weeks, and when I finally returned to it, I had to go back to the beginning. Start this book only if you have a long period of uncommitted time to devote to it.
Clarke has created an alternative universe, where magicians’ powers are valued by politicians and generals – their ability to control weather can make a big difference in how battles turn out. But a careless spell by one magician unleashes an evil spirit, and it’s a 600-page scramble to put the genie back in the bottle.
The details here are part of the book’s power. We march with the soldiers at the battle of Waterloo, and with the magicians through the English countryside. Clarke sets an academic tone here, with footnotes that can reach across two pages and language that seems lifted from Gaskell or Eliot. It’s clear she’s having fun, but it all adds to the realism of Strange & Norrell’s world.
But there’s more to Clarke’s novel than an alternate history where the Brits beat Napoleon because of superior magical spells. England’s North/South divide and all that entails (urban/rural, industrial/agricultural), our world’s division from Faerie (with a sub-plot that echoes the Grimm brothers’ tale, The 12 Dancing Princesses), a love story, a prophecy story, a redemption story. You name it, it’s here. And none of it is extraneous. Clarke weaves everything into a brocade and damask pattern that could only come from the most sophisticated jacquard loom.
Another must-read. I need to remember this for when people say What do you want for your birthday / for Christmas? and my mind goes blank.
I think (hope) you won’t be disappointed.