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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

By Tracy | Books | December 16, 2009 |

By Tracy | Books | December 16, 2009 |

I had put off reading this book for years, and I’m not sure why. It’s not like long books are scary to me, and reviews likened the book to Dickens and Austen, who are two of my faves (well, Austen is. Dickens is a bit of a slog). My brother-in-law had read it a few years ago, and kept asking me if I had. It was getting embarrassing, so I figured I’d better get to it, but started reading with trepidation. Once I started, I had to force myself to put it down. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is long and rambling, and the tone and style change throughout the book, but it all works and melds together to form a brilliant story that drew me in and so involved me in the characters’ lives that I would welcome a sequel.

Too much happens in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to even begin to summarize the story. So, in the words of Inigo Montoya, let me sum up. In York, there is a society of gentlemen magicians who study, but do not practice, magic. Then, Mr. Norrell shows up, and rocks some real magic by making all the statues in the York cathedral talk. And, boy, do they have some stories. Mr. Norrell makes the York magicians sign a contract to never practice magic, and he starts buying up all of the magic books in England.

He moves to London, and performs some very special magic to save the life of Lady Pole, but he enlists the help of a faerie gentleman, who exacts a terrible price. Not from Mr. Norrell, but from Lady Pole. Norrell grants the faerie half Lady Pole’s life, not realizing that it was going to be the night-time half. Every day. She is whisked off to faerie every night, and spends her days in kind of an exhausted fugue state. And whenever she tries to tell someone about what’s happening, she starts speaking nonsense. She despises Mr. Norrell for doing this to her. Lord Pole’s valet gets sucked into this as well, because the faerie man takes a liking to him.

Jonathan Strange decides he wants to become a magician, and becomes Mr. Norrell’s pupil. They work together to bring magic back to England, but they have differing ideas of what it means to be a magician. After they part ways, Strange goes to the continent to help with the war against France, and begins to publicly question Norrell upon his return.

There is so much more in this novel, including John Uskglass, Strange’s wife, Italy, eternal darkness, escapes from faerie, and a new king of faerie. All I can say is that if you have been thinking about reading this book and putting it off, don’t do what I did. I’m looking forward to next year, when I can read it again.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Tracey’s reviews, check out her blog, The Land of Sidewalks and Curbs.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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