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Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

 

Crescent Blues Book Views Bloomsbury (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1582346038

Book: susanna clarke, jonathon strange and mr novell

A great doorstop of a book, Susanna Clarke's 784-page volume is that rare creature; a book about magic for adults that manages to avoid the old medieval fantasy cliches by setting the action in the middle of the Napoleonic wars. While hardly light reading, with its close text interrupted by extensive footnotes, the mammoth research endeavor evident in the detail on every page, makes it absolutely worth the effort, as the pace soon picks up.

The eponymous Gilbert Norrell struggles against his secretive tendencies to fulfill his lifelong dream to revive the once great English tradition of practical magic now largely replaced by dry, scholarly theoretical magic. To this end, he journeys from his eerie country seat of Hurtfew to London, placing his skills at the service of the King's ministers in defeating the French. Though difficult, taciturn and antisocial, Mr. Norrell eventually succeeds in his object with the help of his more cosmopolitan acquaintances and the intelligence of his trusted servant Childermass.

But Norrell soon finds himself struggling to maintain his position as the Greatest Magician of the Age. Mercurial, charismatic and newly married Jonathan Strange possesses an unrefined, natural gift for magic and an overwhelming eagerness to learn more. Moreover, some of his more radical ideas rankle with the timid, unadventurous Norrell.

Hoping to keep Strange's burgeoning talents under his control, Norrell reluctantly takes the younger man on as his pupil, little realizing that his machinations are nothing to those of his companions. While their struggle for position rages, followed eagerly by the press and a breathless nation, a number of small but mysterious happenings go unnoticed, until Strange unwittingly uncovers a path to the vast network of Faerie provinces shimmering beneath the everyday universe, provoking one of its more vicious residents into a terrible vengeance.

But Strange's thirst for knowledge leads him deeper than either magician imagines possible, through war, tragedy and triumph into the realm of the Raven King, England's greatest magician, ruler of Faerie and the north, into danger and eternal darkness.

Beautiful, imperious Faerie princes jostle for the reader's notice with legendary hell-raiser Lord Byron, fraudulent street tricksters, a pedantic society of gentleman magicians and deranged kings. A kindly doctor and his daughter, an aged child prodigy, a severed finger in a lilac box all enjoy their place in this densely peopled story.

The significance of such peripheral characters and events seemingly unrelated to the main plot become apparent in the most satisfying ways. Clarke neatly sketches the heroes throughout, and period detail combines with believable characters and solid dialogue to make an enjoyably challenging read. Best of all are the narrator's conversational asides and keen observations, equally witty in the middle of a domestic upset, a PR disaster or an intellectual debate on the magical arts

Maysa M. Hattab

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