This is one which I’ve wanted to do for a while. My interest was sparked after I saw that they were broadcasting a TV series on BBC in 2015. I finally started to read the book just as the TV series was about to air, and in the end I read the book and watched the series at roughly the same time, although I finished the book slightly before so that the TV series didn’t provide me with any spoilers. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a strange book which covers many genres, but primarily it is a work of historical fantasy that happens to be set in an alternate version of 19th century England.
The book follows the lives of Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange as they become involved in bringing magic to England. However their philosophies begin to diverge and the two men are thrown into conflict into each other. That is the short version but in reality it is a big book with many different plots running in the background, the most notable of which is that of the gentlemen with the thistle down hair, a fae whom Norrell inadvertently sets upon the world and the main antagonist of the book. He becomes enthralled with a woman whom Norrell brought back from the dead, taking her to the kingdom of Lost Hope every night.
The primary issue with the plot, like many big books, is pacing. The book takes too long before kicking of the main plot, namely the conflict between Strange and Norrell. In fact, Strange doesn’t come into the plot properly until the second volume, which doesn’t start until over two hundred pages have passed in my edition. While a lot of the plots set up in the first volume were important, I do not believe they justified focusing on Norrell exclusively for that length of time. Since Strange is a title character who should have equal billing with Norrell, I found this rather jarring. Since the plot didn’t really kick off until Strange arrived, the first volume felt like a two hundred page long monologue. The plot got going nicely afterwards and it was a very intriguing one at that, but getting there left a lot to be desired.
Technically speaking, it felt like I was reading a 19th century work, which is better than what I can say about most historical fiction set in the era. Everything, even the dialogue, felt it came straight out of a Charles Dickens book. I can’t say I was a particularly great fan of the various notes and annotations in the work either. They took up a lot of space and after a while I just got sick of seeing them. Couldn’t Clarke just make a glossary or a companion book for all this world building stuff? I’m a big fan of world building as any fantasy fan but I don’t like it when it interferes with the main content of the book, even in annotation form. I think a Wheel of Time like glossary would have been better for everyone involved to be honest.
In terms of characters, all were very well rounded. I liked Strange in particular, since he was the archetypical byronic hero, or rather flawed hero, who was a staple of romantic fiction of the 19th Century. Norrell, is also flawed, although he doe not meet the criteria of the byronic hero. Other entertaining characters of note include Norrell’s servant Childermass, whose brand of sarcasm never ceases to amaze me, and of course the gentlemen in thistle down hair, whose alien nature is just so fascinating. The characters are amazing, and they are the reason I enjoyed reading the book so much in the end.
In the end I’d say that the book is a flawed masterpiece. I felt like was a good story with good characters. It was just poorly executed in places. If the book had rearranged or cut down its earlier chapters so as to introduce Strange into the plot sooner then the book would have been near perfect, even with the annotations still getting in the way. For anyone interested in writing historical fantasy, particularly in the 19th century, or writing a setting based of 19th century culture then this novel is a must read. It takes some getting into, but once it gets going you’re in for a hell of a ride.
IN A WORD: LONG