Oh man, I really liked this book. I bought it on a stressful day of medical tests, where I knew that waiting room stretches would require more distraction than staring at all the fellow waiters and trying to figure out what they were in for.
Though fairies and magic are not my usual things, there are many aspects of Clarke’s giant novel that are. First of all it is huge. When I decide to immerse myself in another world, I like that feeling to last for a long time. Secondly, it contains many, many references to and quotes from equally realized books that are as much of an invention as the main story. I love excerpts from fake books as a device to deepen and expand a story. Thirdly, it is not exactly a fantasy story; it is more like an alternate history where magic and fairies influenced important battles, as well as having a long and lost history of their own.
The story concerns the state of magic in England, which in 1806 where the book opens, is quite dismal. “Gentleman-magicians” had clubs where they discussed the history and minutia of magic, but never, never practiced it. Street magicians performed conjuring tricks and were looked down upon by all serious (i.e. non-practicing) magicians. With the discovery of a magician who both practices and has nice clothes, England goes magic crazy.
Surprisingly the two main characters, Norrell and Strange, magicians, are not very interesting. The effects of their relationship on the secondary characters is much more compelling, as are those characters. You’d think that this would unbalance the narrative but it doesn’t. In fact, this characteristic is familiar from gigantor 19th century novels I’ve read and since Clarke uses the language and conventions of such book, it feels right, though it may cause you to skim a few parts.
I love the fairies as Clarke presents them. They are arrogant, beautiful and basically psychopaths. No sense of right and wrong, only what feels good. They have fractious, warring families, they think nothing of sweeping humans into their world for an evening (or hundreds of years) and they love parties. I was also intrigued by Faerie, the realm. It is a parallel world, reached through established means (such as long-disused faerie roads) or, more frighteningly for humans, by accident or the whim of a fairy. Often a visitor can’t tell that they have crossed into Faerie until something unusual happens, and sometimes not even then. I like this notion, as I often feel adrift in other realms during different parts of my day. Right now I am in Needs To Take A Shower. It stinks here!
There are a few stumbles in the many pages of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, mostly from not-quite-successful attempts at humor. These missteps are very few and far between though and don’t detract from the book overall.
My copy included illustrations by Portia Rosenberg that are simply awful. That, paired with the shoddy binding and Bible-thin pages made this not the best buy in terms of book longevity, but the many hours I spent with it have more than made up for that.