Erin’s ESS = out of 10
Content = PG-13 (Adult Content, Language, Violence, Wit, Prophetic Tattoos, Thistle Down Hair)
“Beware Stephen! There will probably be a magical combat of some sort. I daresay I shall have to take on different forms – cockatrice, raw head and bloody bones, rains of fire, etc., etc. You may wish to stand back a little!”
Why: The most intelligent book about magic we’ve ever read. In fact, we almost refused to provide a review because anything we hope to compose will hardly do Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell justice. Seriously, this novel touches so many genres, includes so many themes, and pulls inspiration from so many classics it’s hard to know where to begin. While Susanna Clarke spent 10 years writing her novel, this post turned out to be 10 minutes in the making, so at least we’ve got that going for us...
The novel opens with a skills test, as Mr. Norrell proves himself as the last practicing magician of the age (which happens to be early 19th century England). He quickly becomes the lone authority on magic, and lends his talents to several causes, including the failing war against Napoleon. Amidst Norrell’s growing popularity, a sinister force with thistle down hair is release into the world. At the same, a second magician is thrust to the forefront and together Strange and Norrell become a magic dynamic duo on par with Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Alas, the partnership is not meant to be, which only adds intrigue to the eventual no holds bar magical showdown against the previously mentioned sinister force with thistle down hair.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a treasure-trove of complexity and background information. While this adds infinite richness and depth, the narrative also had a tendency to get bogged down at times. It also took a while for us to really get into the story. That being said, we loved how the magical lore was woven seamlessly through England’s history and the Napoleonic Wars. The writing was superb, the style flawless, and the whit had us laughing throughout. The novel also contained one of the most ingenious book selling techniques of all time – a book of magic that disappears after purchase, forcing the reader to buy a second copy.
The cast of characters was also very strong. Besides the two main characters, perhaps our favorite was a discredited street magician named Vinculus (we hear the coming sequel will propel Vinculus into the limelight). The novel also includes the personalities of several well known historical figures which added credibility and then there’s the gentleman with the thistle down hair...
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is more about the journey and less about the destination. Hang on at the beginning and your bookish desires will be rewarded.