book-reviews

Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

by Susanna Clarke

Rating: ★★★★

I'd heard of some buzz about Johnathan Strange for a while, but I'd largely dismissed it as a flavour-of-the-moment light fantasy. Browsing a bookshop one day, I picked it off the shelf out of a vague curiosity, read the blurb, and then grudgingly gave the first page a once-over. Then I read the second page. Then the third. Then I decided that fair was fair, anyone who can hook me like that deserves reading, and bought the book.

Clarke's composition is an unusually strong balance of worldbuilding, plot, characterisation and writing style. The tone, at least to start with, is reminiscent of a narrative history, and to a degree you can read the book as an in-universe text about the recovery of magic from the status of a lost theoretical art to a practical affair. But it's more than that. It's also a story about two extraordinary people who were nonetheless quite human. Mr. Norrell is an infuriating hoarder of knowledge, the sort of person you would long to dismiss if he were not also one of the greatest minds and talents. Strange is a flighty man who most suddenly has found a true calling. The novel also wins my admiration for the terribly true-to-life depiction of a fairy prince. This being is the very definition of fey: capricious, cruel and utterly alien, ever ready to slip from a terrible vengeful fury into a jolly grin, or vice-versa.

There are very few weaknesses to this book. I found the digression to Italy a little uneven -- it seemed too long, and with too many new loops for what it ultimately led to, and it cut some of the dramatic interplay between the magicians which clearly make the novel what it is. On the whole, though, it was very successful both in building a unique aesthetic and world, and in deploying a story and characters in that world which compel you to pay attention.