Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Review

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I’m continuing to plug along and read the science fiction and fantasy books that appear in NPR’s Top 100 list (public vote).  The “score” isn’t so good.  I’ve read (or listened to an unabridged audiobook) 31.  I’ve watched a movie of an additional four, which doesn’t exactly count.  I’ve got three more in hand, and... we’ll see how far I go.  Some, which are listed as a single entry, are actually a series of books.  So, for example, while I would like to say I’ve read the Top 10, I’ve read the Top 4, but #5 is R.R. Martin’s “Fire and Ice” series.  I’ve seen enough snippets of the “Game of Thrones” to see that there’s not enough there to pique my interest.  I like to have at least one protagonist, you see.

My latest conquest was #64, Susanna Clark’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.”  I’d seen this around for years.  The cover and typeface made me curious; the thickness (~1000 pages in paperback) discouraged me.  That said, finding a copy for $2.99 can change one’s mind, especially after finding that it’s on The List.

It was deserving.  In short, it’s about two magicians who rekindle magic in England.  The “rekindle” is the key.  The book is an alternative history approach where it is a given that magic was once commonplace in England, and everyone knows it.  To this end, Clarke includes references to various historical books that shed light on some of the nuances of this.  Footnotes galore, and often humorous.  But it’s never tongue in cheek.

It’s also not a fast paced book.  Story sections are not set apart in clear chapters, and, on occasion, even the following paragraph, without a separation line, abruptly changes the narrative direction.  It’s strange, but it is imaginative throughout, and diction choices are often enough of a reward to keep plowing ahead.  

So... I usually try to find some interesting quotes.  This book is loaded with dry, penetrating wit. 

“They were Englishmen, and to them, the decline of other nations was the most natural thing in the world.  They belonged to a race blessed with so sensitive an appreciation of its own talents (and so doubtful an opinion of any body else’s) that they many not have been at all surprised to learn that the Venetians themselves had been entirely ignorant of the merits of their own city – until Englishmen had come to tell them it was delightful.”

“Such nonsense!” declared Dr. Greysteel.  “Whoever heard of cats doing anything useful!”
”Except for staring at one in a supercilious manner,” said Strange.  “That has a sort of moral usefulness, I suppose, in making one feel uncomfortable and encouraging sober reflection upon one’s imperfections.”

“Mr. Robinson was a polished sort of person. He was so clean and healthy and pleased about everything that he positively shone - which is only to be expected in a fairy or an angel, but is somewhat disconcerting in an attorney.”

“For, though the room was silent, the silence of half a hundred cats is a peculiar thing, like fifty individual silences all piled one on top of another.”

“Ha!' said the tall man drily. 'He was in high luck. Rich old uncles who die are in shockingly short supply.”

“But, though French, she was also very brave...”

“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 would.”

4 of 5 STARS

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