Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

This novel’s sheer size may feel a bit daunting at first, but once you’ve started reading you’ll know what to expect. If you don’t like it within the first two chapters, you won’t like it any better later. If you do, however, you have about 1000 pages of pure awesome ahead of you. And trust me, by the end you’ll wish there were more…

by Susanna Clarke

published by: Bloomsbury, 2004
copy: paperback (the red one)

my rating: 9,5/10

first sentence: Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England’s history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England – until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight. Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.

If Jane Austen and Charles Dickens had cooperated to write a fantasy novel, this is what would have happened. Susanna Clarke makes the early 19th century come to life with the same wit as any of Austen’s heroines and the same epic scope of some of Dickens’ works. Add to the mix a particularly engaging magic system – that feels a lot like science – and you’ve got yourself a bestseller. I make these comparisons not to diminish Clarke’s work. Quite the opposite, she keeps her own voice throughout the novel and while obviously inspired by these classic authors, this is not a copy or a rip-off. But if you like Austen or Dickens and a fairy tale-like, if somewhat dark, version of magic, then these 1006 pages are truly worth picking up.

While the blurb says as much about the plot as I’m willing to give away, let me just say, this book is about the journey, not the destination. Yes, there are questions that you desperately want answered and there is suspense built up constantly, but simply diving into this alternate England during the Napoleonic Wars, and seeing what Strange and Norrell are up to, was enough for me. I crawled into the book, I found my happy place.

The characters are introduced cleverly and all have their own voice and drive. Mr Norrell especially was outstandingly done. His gruff, secluded self by far prefers the company of books to that of humans or even his fellow magician. His study of magic will remind any college student of sleepless nights, spent pouring over tomes of dry, factual text books. But even that is fun when Susanna Clarkes writes about it. Jonathan Strange, a much more relatable character and in many ways the polar opposite of Norrell, brings balance to the story and gives the reader someone to sympathise with.

Apart from the charming, witty style, what I most enjoyed about this book was the magic. While introduced subtly and not at all epic, there is this underlying tone of magic being much bigger than the reader – or Strange and Norrell, for that matter – dare to believe. Also, the Raven King, the greatest magician of all time, now long gone, was probably the most incredible character I’ve ever read about, if only for the fact that he spends the whole book offstage. Talk about writing skills!

On Susanna Clarke’s homepage, you’ll find adorable interviews of the protagonists on what they think of each other and this novel.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a charming, dark fairy tale with vivid characters, a slow but satisfying plot and a magic all its own. So far, the only fix for fans like me was the short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu which I also recommend. That said, whatever Susanna Clarke writes next, I’m dying to read it.

THE GOOD: Clever, witty, beautiful prose. Incredible characters, a plot of epic scope, and a believable alternate history novel.
THE BAD: If you don’t like the style, it won’t get better. You’ll hate all of it.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended to lovers of Austen/Dickens and fantasy or anyone who like Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey but want more depth and scope.

MY RATING: 9,5/10  Pretty near perfection

2 thoughts on “Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

  1. Lynn says:

    I loved this book, it does seem to provoke different reactions in people and perhaps that’s because of the length – it’s not a quick read by any stretch of the imagination. Plus the Raven King was brilliant. Reading this review I almost feel like I should read this again! You have to hand it to the author – I understand it took years to complete (about 10) but it was definitely worthwhile.
    Lynn 😀


    • Nadine says:

      Oh yes, absolutely. I have been eagerly awaiting anything else Susanna Clarke publishes. So far, it’s “only” been The Ladies of Grace Adieu (also highly recommended) but I agree with you. The ten years working on this beast definitely paid off. And while I was reading, I didn’t feel it was long at all. If anything, those 1000 pages were over too fast.


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