Monday, April 7, 2008

Review - Johnathon Strange and Mr. Norrell

Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
by Suzanna Clarke

2005 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

No time for a post today. Here's an article from the April 7, 1835 edition of the Morning Chronicle of London to hold you over.


Much has been made of the new story by one Mr. S. Clarke forming a fictionalized account of the revival of magic in this modern era. The follows of Mr. Norrell have sent many angry missives to the papers and literary journals decrying the depiction of their patron igniting a fresh conflagration in their debates with the followers of Mr. Strange. This reporter found the work to be a delight; in turns an enjoyable flight of whimsy, a dramatic magical conflict between great forces, and a chilling moral tale of the dangers in tampering with such strange forces.

I need hardly recount to any of you, fair readers, how magic had faded from Britain for centuries leaving only historians to pass themselves off as magicians. The discovery of a true magician in Mr. Norrell was a pleasure and the accounts of his services to the crown as well as his adventures in society were the talk of London. And of course when his pupil Mr. Strange was discovered the wonders the two of them created before being drawn into conflict were astounding. Mr. Clarke's novel tells all of this and perhaps most scandalous he depicts Mr. Norrell as one who would in desperation traffic with spirits, a claim that has been vigorously attacked.

Most curiously the novel is written in a particularly modern style that might turn off readers casual readers more adapted to classical works but any student of current nineteenth century English literature such as myself will find it delightful. In fact our young Mr. Dickens is quite taken by the style of the work and has stated that he will endeavor to mimic it henceforth. As the work was serialized first in a weekly paper it shows signs of drifting from chapter to chapter in no particular hurry. Consequently the book is particularly lengthy; some readers may find themselves exhausted with the effort of reading it though many may find themselves exhausted simply by the effort of carrying it.

Perhaps the most perturbing aspect of the novel is that it ends abruptly shortly after the events in Italy. While perhaps Mr. Clarke is reserving the more recent terrible events that have surrounded magic for a second volume this reader was left desiring the narrative to continue.

Mr. Clarke has performed an exceptional task in building a composite image of the first two magicians of the modern era and while some may comment upon certain aspects of Mr. Norrell's depiction it can hardly be disputed that the personality of both great men is captured within the pages. The paths that lead each of them to their distinctive forms of magic are clearly laid out so that the reader can accompany them as the art changes them.

This also leads to the most controversial portion of the novel in which the methods of the two magicians are contrasted and how they lead the two of them into conflict. Every schoolchild knows the results of that confrontation but rarely has the reasons for it been so clearly put to page.

The magical history has become a popular staple of booksellers, but I find that it is often clumsily done with characters out of place and too many things made simple for the characters by use of magic. Mr. Clarke makes it clear that magic while potent is not all powerful and as a result it increases the tension of the story while simultaneously evading the common solution of a new magic fixing complicate problems with no effort that other authors use. In addition Mr. Clarke's modern style gives his work a distinctive feel so while other authors writing of true magic resort to similar weak techniques Mr. Clarke is blazing a new trail.

All in all S. Clarke's Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is the ideal book for the reader interested in the details of modern magic but not wanting to reach one of the many dry histories that have been published in the past ten years. Perhaps most notably it has gained attention even outside of the magical enthusiasts as a superb novel. You should read it henceforth.