66 of 67 people found the following review helpful
on 7 January 2012
I finished reading this exquisite novel last night - and am exceedingly sad as a consequence. This book is one of a very rare breed; the kind of book you want to continue reading forever. The writing is perfectly polished whilst being extremely accessible. Reading it feels likes drinking cocoa and wearing comfy slippers - the prose flows through your ears and slips into your mind with the ease of a conversation with an old friend.. There is no effort required on the reader's part, which is an incredible feat considering the actual subject matter is of such a complex and considered nature.
I have read some of the one and two-star reviews on Amazon and am amazed to see people complain of a "lack of plot". If you want a simple book with a straightforward beginning, middle and end, perhaps you would do well to steer clear of this one. This novel is like a fine vintage win, full of delicate notes and sublte undertones - it does not have the immediate hit of a shot of vodka.
It is a book of tremendous wit and humour which is subtly nuanced not forced into your face. I found myself laughing aloud several times at the satirical observations on history and politics.
The characters possess real depth and their natures evolve realistically throughout the novel - by "realistically" I mean that they alter gradually and slightly. This is not a heavy-handed work of fiction where the bad guy renounces his sins at the end and becomes good.
I feel desperately sorry for anyone who read this book and didn't feel its full power. This is a book to luxuriate in and is the best novel I have read in many years - one for the real literature lovers who appreciate style AND substance equally.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Susanna Clarke's `Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' is set in an alternate version of 19th Century England rife where magic is very much present. From the theoretical magicians that gather across the country to the hundred of people across the northern counties still waiting for their Raven King to come back and claim his throne, magic has an undeniable impact on everyone in the kingdom, rich or poor.
But while magical societies discuss the great feats of the past, in Yorkshire one man is determined to bring back practical magic. Surrounded by his precious books, the reclusive Mr Norrell heads to London to lend his help to the war effort and defeat Napoleon. Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange stumbles across magic as a profession almost by accident. Inventive, passionate and eccentric, his style and approach to the study and practice of magic is entirely different from Norrell's - leading to an inevitable clash of opinions.
England is split into `Strangites' and `Norrellites'. A war of words is played out through the magical journals. Increasingly great and ambitious magic is played out on the battlefields of Europe, the savage English coastline and the drawing rooms of the English aristocracy. People are raised from the dead, rain takes on solid forms, darkness falls for days on end and cities, roads and forests are moved to a magician's whim. But beyond all of this lurks shadowy figure of the Raven King and the malevolent world of faerie looking to reek havoc on those that dare to lay a claim on English magic - bringing dark and unforeseen consequences.
It is undoubtedly an amazing feat of world building. There's a whole bibliography of fictional titles mentioned throughout the book, each with a fictional author and subject matter, as well as a complete magical history stretching back for almost 1000 years. This history is recounted along with numerous stories, legends and folklore relevant in long explanatory footnotes that make the book seem almost like an academic work rather than a novel. This does help to give a great sense of context, but at some points it did get a little frustrating, especially when I was nearing the end of the novel and more interested in the actual characters than an exhaustive story that seems in no way connected to the story. At these points, it was probably a good job that I was listening to this as an audiobook - as I would have been sorely tempted to skip thorough these whole sections.
One up-side of the impressive length, however, is that each and every single character is completely and utterly brought to life. Everyone is given his or her own backstory and individual characteristics, again helping to totally immerse the reader in Clarke's world. The book is packed with black humour and subtle social commentary that continues to drive the story along even through the more intense sections dedicated to historical magical debates and incidents. Another thing I loved was the ending, which worked really well and made me smile. I actually enjoyed it so much that I haven't been able to get really interested in another book since - always the sign of a good read!
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 14 November 2011
I am amazed to read some of the customer reviews for this literary masterpiece!
Apparently for some readers it needs editing, it is dull, there are too many words ( whatever that means) and no-one seems certain how Kindle handles the footnotes!
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell doesn't need any alterations. It is an extraordinary achievement - a magical blending of literary tradition, somewhat in the style of Trollope - and the alternative history genre.
OK, it is a big book. I suppose the publishers could have divided into separate volumes, but really, why bother.
As for needing editing - I cannot find anything superfluous in the text. I am at a loss to understand this criticism. For anyone who's familiar with nineteenth century literature such a demand will, rightly, seem risible.
Anyway, just one of the many merits of Clarke's masterpiece is the contemporary critique of inequality that emerges throughout the narrative. This is done in a way that feels completely at ease within a fairly historicized literary form.
The plot weaves all over the place but never actually drifts off course. And there are heaps of footnotes that create a fascinating folk history. Basically this book is incredibly exciting, very funny, and not lacking in moral strength.
No doubt there was a crazy bidding war for the film rights. I imagine whoever found themselves tasked with turning this epic into a movie will be in total meltdown!
An essential read - highly recommended.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 18 February 2015
England in the early 19th Century, at war with France and magic forgotten across the land. A few worthy gentlemen read books of magic but they are merely theoretical magicians, there are no practical magicians any more. However one man seems to be more knowledgable than others, he collects books and lives quietly, challenged to show magic, Mr Norrell makes the stones of York Cathedral speak. Then he casts a spell to resurrect a wealthy and beautiful society woman, but this spell has unforeseen consequences. As his pupil, the young and glamorous Jonathan Strange, seems to upstage him through feats in warfare, Mr Norrell becomes more concerned that magic should be the preserve of the few.
I bought this book when it first came out, a decade ago, but never got into it. It's a massive tome (1000 pages) and has many footnotes which make it a complex read. However with more time on my hands I persevered and fell in love with the imagination that created this story.
Yes, it's flabby in places and the ending is complex, but it is just marvellous
149 of 163 people found the following review helpful
on 8 October 2004
This is truly a fantastic book. I can't praise it highly enough. The plot, characters, pacing and, above all, the back story, make this a brilliant novel and a fantastic début. And, being a Yorkshire lass myself, it was certainly gratifying to find a novel that doesn't rampantly stereotype all Northerners.
The story begins in 1806, when two theoretical magicians with the wonderfully Dickensian names of Segundus and Honeyfoot encounter the reclusive scholar, Mr Norrell. Their quest is to find out why magic, which was once so common in England, particularly in the North under the 300 year reign of the Raven King John Uskglass, is now a distant history to be studied by gentlemen like themselves. But they discover that, for all his bookish and condescending ways, Mr Norrell is in fact a practical magician, which he proves by bringing all the statues in York Minster/Cathedral to life. Having brought his powers to the attention of the public, he immediately sets of to London, where he plans to help in the war effort against Napoleon, and in the process resurrect English magic.
At first he is not taken seriously, and it soon becomes clear Norrell will go to any lengths to become the only magician in England. But when he encounters Jonathan Strange, another magician, he seems to wake up to new possibilities. He takes Strange on as a pupil. But the two men are too different for the partnership to last. Norrell is secretive and unfriendly, hoarding magical knowledge and desperately preserving his own prestige. Strange is charming and gregarious, and becomes a hero in the wars. What starts off as mild rivalry soon escalates into a feud, with far reaching consequences.
If you've see the size of this book, you'll understand it's a hard thing to summarize. At almost 800 pages it's not a coffee table book, it's a coffee table. But don't be put off. It's fast moving, brilliantly written, wryly amusing and full of nods to the ghosts of literature past. It's also quite beautiful, and I'm not just talking about the pretty cover. It's part Lord of the Rings, part Harry Potter, part The Crimson Petal And The White and part Jane Austen. I raced through it in 3 days, and am already halfway through my second reading. Apparently there's a sequel in the pipeline, and at the minute I'd gladly put back Harry Potter 6 by years to have that instead.
45 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on 29 November 2006
An amazing book. How on earth the author managed to maintain so strongly the Dickensian/Jane Austenian(!) feel of the narrative I have no idea. It took me all of 3 months to read it - there was no possibility of "skipping" a passage because the whole book was so very readable and, may I say, even gripping in places - it would have been a pity to have missed any little bit of it! The principal characters are so real, despite many of them being obviously fictional and drawn from the realms of fantasy (difficult to understand, if you like), so that the reader is drawn into a web of fantasy woven into a story with some of the factual characters of history (Lord Byron, the Duke of Wellington, etc) as well as those which dwell only in the author's imagination. The footnotes are a joy - taking the story off at a tangent, but without losing the plot and returning it safely to the matter in hand. Not everyone's cup of tea, I have no doubt, but I and many of my friends thought it wonderful! A book which I will not send off to a charity shop, but which will live on my bookshelf for many years to come, to be re-read again and again, such is its charm and charisma. It will be interesting to see what the author comes up with next! Can't wait!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
I knew nothing of the background furore to this book: its rapturous reviews, its contention for the Booker prize, nor the heat of animosity it has aroused in a smaller but significant minority. It was given to me this year as a birthday present. It struck me quickly that it is likely to divide sharply its readers. In structure it is, or closely resembles, a Victorian novel, as it does in length. It is certainly not in the manner of Jane Austen, rather more akin to the likes of “Bleak House” in its many-threaded plot and its cast of fascinatingly diverse and eccentric characters.
The problems for many readers will be ones of style and the sheer challenge of close reading of some 1,000 pages. It does require some effort and it may seem tempting to skip the footnotes, but they offer a kind of sub-text that affords an additional layer of delight. Style and subject matter are hard to separate as Susanna Clarke’s imaginative invention is carried in a mode of writing that suits exactly its content. Subtlety, wit and whimsy are blended together to create a most satisfying whole. In the early stages I had real doubts as to whether there would be enough substance and variety to sustain a novel of this length. A pattern slowly emerged. Just as I was beginning to feel that perhaps things were going a little flat, a gem of description, a shaft of humour, a wonderful verbal exchange picked up the tempo and soon I was utterly held.
That the fantasy and the nature of the humour may not reach out to all seems fair enough. Some of the other criticisms seem to me strange and even unfair. The accusation of snobbery, if predictable, I find tiresome. Inverted snobbery must compete with flagellation as the English disease, and has much to answer for, not least the mediocrity of our state secondary education. But that is another subject not to be pursued here.
I would agree that the ending falls short of expectations. It lacks the conviction and vitality of the best of the novel. Nonetheless, I found this novel an entrancing read, absorbing and richly funny. It doesn’t strike me as being in quite the class of Donna Tartt’s work, but still thoroughly worth the effort. Original and rewarding.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 16 April 2010
`Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' is a fantastical story of old fashioned magic interweaved with the historical events of nineteenth century England. Mr Norrell considers himself to be the last practitioner of magic, stemming from a previous era when magic was commonplace under the reign of the mysterious John Uskglass. Mr Norrell initially confirms his magician credentials through making statues come to life as well as reviving a recently deceased woman. However, in meddling with dangerous magic he brings forth a sinister yet fascinating character known as `the gentleman with the thistledown hair', who tip toes in and out of the novel with menacing schemes to restore fairrie power to England.
After stumbling in to the world of magic Jonathon Strange becomes an apprentice to Mr Norrell and seeks to use his new found skills to assist England in the Napoleonic war. He creates naval fleets from water, movable countryside and hands of sand which rise from the ground to cause havoc for the enemy forces. He soon becomes an essential asset to Wellington's war effort.
As the novel progresses darker forces provide challenges for the magical duo, and the plot twists and turns to fulfil prophesies, explore yet more wondrous feats of magic and cleverly tie all the story threads together.
Although Susanna Clarke's imagination seems limitless and a joy for most to read, at 800 pages and with a sometimes slow pace this book can prove difficult, but if you persevere you are rewarded with a highly original and captivating story.
"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."
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 16 April 2010
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell doesn't begin with much of bang, but its is worth sticking with for it one of the best books I've ever read. It begins with the character of Mr Norrell, who is a boring and tiresome character, and hence the book's initial volume struggles to excite. Indeed, I almost gave up on it (first volume is 250 pages!)but am so glad that I didn't. The introduction of Jonathon Strange - Norrell's dynamic, amiable protege - gives the narrative a whole new dimension, with the plot cranking up in speed and before you know it you can't put this book down. The world the author creates becomes ever more fascinating, as Strange, unlike Norrell, seeks to explore his world further and what a wonderful world it is. The author mixes the factual world of 1800s Britain with sprinklings of fantasy as Strange and Norrell study magic as though it were a profession like any other, such as law or medicine or politics. Strange enters the war between Washington and Napoleon, the social scene of upper class London and the unexplored world of fairy, pulling Norrell unwittingly along with him and putting their lives, and that of Strange's wife, in jeopardy.
So with all that said, its a challenge to identify what type of book this is. It has the feel of a Victorian novel, yet also it is is also part of the fairy tale genre that the likes of Neil Gaiman have done so well with. It is about the conflict between two good men who come from two different extremes, and how they both deal with the success their profession brings to them. It's also about the telling of a classic fairy tale - not the modern fairy tales where everyone lives happily ever after, but the original ones where sometimes Red Riding Hood gets eaten up and Hansel and Gretel find themselves in hot water.
If you can keep an open mind and persevere through the opening volume, then there's a good chance you will love this book. However, if the idea of mixing fairies and magicians in with the realism of 1800s Britain doesn't sit well with you, or if you would struggle to find the patience to wait 250 pages for the book to get going, them maybe this isn't for you. But I've got to say that having started of hating the book, at the end I found myself loathing the idea of putting it down. It has a certain charm that gradually takes hold and then refuses to let go. The author has created an endearing, original and classic novel that is worth a look, and is easily in my top three books of all time.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on 7 May 2006
The main virtue of this book is the way in which it portrays the magical, the surreal and the ridiculous whilst still assuring the reader of the seriousness of the overall endeavour. Whether its painting a scene with lashings of black humour, or dwelling casually on the gruesomeness of the living dead, we are convinced of the writer's commitment to genuine realism both in the characterisation and in the dynamics of the narrative. Whilst the Regency England depicted in the novel is a magical one, there is an internal consistency and wonderful focus on detail which draws us in to an experience which is the ultimate in escapism. The style and orthography of the writing makes you feel like you are entering a different world every time you open the book. The pseudo-eighteenth century style and orthography isn't quite authentic but gets about as close as the setting does to the historical one and creates the same kind of effect - the sense that you have happened upon some artifact of the past, but which doesn't quite match up with the reality we've always been told about. At some points in the book you almost find yourself believing that sorcery was a respected academic discipline in the early nineteenth century - they did wear those ridiculous wigs after all.