by Susanna Clarke
Susanna Clarke has written an immensely impressive masterpiece of a book that transcends genre and sticks out from contemporary fantasy as much as a beacon in a dark night. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell isn’t a page-turner for most of it, but is an intricately built story of a world very much like our own and yet so very different: Clarke shows us England and its upper classes in the (pre-)Victorean era, rivalling authors like Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde in her grand, keen depiction of it – and as if that wasn’t enough of an accomplishment already, she adds magic to give it some extra brilliance.
‘But I have a plan for my kingdom’s restoration! I have dispatched ambassadors to the King of the Fishes with proposals that I should marry a mermaid and so end the strife between our two great Nations!’
Those are the words which the author puts into the mouth of George III, then King of Great Britain, who was perhaps a tiny, little bit insane. This is the world this unique novel takes place in: Europe at the start of the 19th century – a continent either fighting for or against Napoleon Buonaparte. As for England, where most of the story takes place, this means of course fighting against Napoleon, insane king on the throne or not: Wellington, Spain, Waterloo, all that stuff. But in Susanna Clarke’s version, Britain has a mighty weapon which the French haven’t: magic. Magic has been gone for centuries, but now two new magicians rise in England: Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange, two of the protagonists of this book. And their magic doesn’t consist of pseudo-latin phrases and wand movements(Its LeviOsa, not LeviosA!), and they didn’t learn magic in a Scottish castle – no, magic is learnt from books. Books about the Raven King, the most powerful of English magicians, who has left England centuries ago.
Her arms were all too feeble
Though she claimed to love me so
The Raven King stretched out his hand
She sighed and let me go.
The thing is that Mr Norrell is an asshole who is absolutely not interested in sharing his knowledge and his books. Norrell is so keen to be the only magician in all of England that he buys all the books about magic there are in the country. He is a hypocrite, an easily manipulable character and perhaps even a sociopath.
‚I have a scholar’s love of silence and solitude. To sit and pass hour after hour in idle chatter with a roomful of strangers is to me the worst sort of torment.‘
Thank God there’s another magician in England: Jonathan Strange, first Norrell’s pupil and very soon his rival. Strange is everything Norrell isn’t: brave where he is fearful, rash where he is cautious, passionate where he is boring. For a short time, these extraordinary and so very different men work together and fight the French, but in the end, their differences are too many and too great: they part ways. While Norrell remains sitting in his library, scared because of the things he’s done in the past – conjuring up a great evil, for instance -, Strange joins Wellington’s army in Portugal, Spain, and Belgium, playing an important part in Napoleon’s downfall. He changes the locations of cities and rivers, conjures roads out of nowhere – basically he does what people expect of a powerful magician.
‚Can a magician kill a man by magic?‘ Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. ‚I suppose a magician might,‘ he admitted, ‚but a gentleman never could.‘
‘Lord Wellington rejects all my offers of help as soon as I make them.’
‘Why? What have you offered him?’
Strange told him about his first proposal to send a plague of frogs to fall on the French from the sky.
‘Well I am really not at all surprised he refused that!’ said Briscall, contemptuously. ‘The French cook frogs and eat them, do they not?’
After Strange’s return to England, their rivalry soon turns into open hostility, slowly developing from petty skulduggery and slights to vile accusations of murder. And during all of that, Norrell is frightened out of his mind because of what he did. Because Norrell, the steadfast opponent of conjuring fairies, has done just what he strongly opposes in public: he has conjured a fairie, basically a demon that haunts the lives of his victims, forcing them to spend all of their nights in his otherworldly realm. If you need an example of that demon’s character…
‘I cleverly contrived to capture the little children of my enemy and we pushed them out of the belfry to their deaths. Tonight we will reenact this great triumph!’
‘And do you perform this ceremony every year, sir?’
‘I perform it whenever I think of it. Of course it was a great deal more striking when we used real children.’
Yep. That’s him. Charming fellow, isn’t he? And while he’s the major antagonist of the two magicians (as far as they aren’t each other’s biggest enemies, of course), there also are more petty villains in this one. There are Lascelles and Drawlight, Norrell’s ‚friends‘, and there are all those petty, vile characters who wish to use the magicians‘ powers to hurt those who have in their opinion wronged them.
‚Mrs Bulworth Senior‘- your husband‘s mother, I suppose – ‚To be drowned in a laundry tube. To be choked to death on her own apricot preserves. To be baked accidentally in a bread oven.‘ That is three deaths for one woman.Forgive me Mrs Bulworth, but the greatest magician that ever lived could not kill the same person three different ways.‘
‚Do as much as you can manage,‘ said Mrs Bulworth stubbornly.
In the end, there’s the big confrontation, of course, though it could be bigger. More epic. As this is a over-a-thousand-pages novel, there are some tedious passages, but they’re all full of irony and wit: this is a hugely intelligent book. It isn’t one of those books where the author explains everything to you, no, this one makes its readers think about whats happening and why. It also contains a lot of footnotes, and though I’ve once said that only Jonathan Strout should be allowed to use footnotes in fiction, I’m mostly okay with Clarke using them. They add depth to the world-building, at least most of them do.
My only issue with this book is that the ending isn’t epic enough for my taste. One of our protagonists has seriously wronged the other, and I think there should’ve been some payoff for that. But it still fits the book which is told in that unagitated, somewhat neutral style: Strange and Norrell are called by their surnames and all of the terrifying crimes committed in this one are mostly left uncommented – the reader is supposed to be horrified without being told.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a fascinating character study of England in Napoleonic times and at the same time a landmark of modern fantasy. Clarke’s approach is so very different to anyone else: there are spells in her magic, but in the end, it’s still full of riddles. There are fairies, fairie realms, passages through mirrors, cities being transported to America, dead ladies being resurrected from the dead, and prophecies. And while a lot of it is revealed for what it is in the end, many riddles remain unsolved. This is perhaps the most unique fantasy book written in the last fifty years, both intelligent and fascinating. You need a lot of patience for this one – I don’t think I’ve ever needed this much time for a book I really liked, but it’s totally worth it. The writing is superb, the characters are strong and entertaining, and the world-building is in a league of its own. Five very deserved stars.
‚I gave magic to England, a valuable inheritance
But Englishmen have despised my gift
Magic shall be written upon the sky by the rain but they shall not be able to read it;
Magic shall be written on the faces of the stony hills but their minds shall not be able to contain it;
In winter the barren trees shall be a black writing but they shall not understand it…
Two magicians shall appear in England…
The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache;
The second shall see his dearest posession in his enemy’s hand…
The first shall pass his life alone, he shall be his own gaoler;
The second shall tread lonely roads, the storm above his head, seeking a dark tower upon a high hillside…
I sit upon a black throne in the shadows but they shall not see me.
The rain shall make a door for me and I shall pass through it;
The stones shall make a throne for me and I shall sit upon it…
The nameless slave shall wear a silver crown
The nameless slave shall be a king in a strange country…