He wished to know why there was no more magic done in England.
By Susanna Clarke
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England’s history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England-until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.
Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.
It is odd, that I should think so well of a book that took me so long to feel hooked and drawn by. Yet when a book keeps me up until 2AM after a tiring day, when it immediately occupies my thoughts upon waking, when it makes me feel as if I have lost something valuable once it has ended… that is a book I give my highest marks to.
The summary from Amazon gives only the barest understanding of what this lengthy novel is about. Yes, is is about the return of magic to early 19th century England, but it is also about prophecies, madness, alternate dimensions, rivalry, greed, love, loss, war, violence, history, allegiance, and death. Over the course of nearly 1,000 pages Susanna Clarke weaves a tale that is about more than just the two titular men. It is about England itself, about gentlemen and ladies and servants, and about the revolution that their actions bring about. It is so, forgive the pun, magically assembled that it is no wonder it took the author a decade to put it together (and on top of the primary narrative, Clarke adds in dozens of footnotes that flesh out more of the background to this alternate history).
My primary hesitation with this novel is that was not something immediately wondrous at the first page. Clarke takes inspiration from real authors of the period she writes about, and makes magic something almost tired and mundane at the opening. Despite an important and immediate mystery on where practiced magic has gotten to, it is far from the first page whimsy of Rowling (though to be fair, this is also not a book intended for middle school students).
You meet only the character of Mr. Norrell for the first several chapters, and while he becomes more nuanced and interesting as the story progresses, he requires the offset of Strange to bring out the motivations that make him ultimately compelling. Without his counterpart to play off against he comes off as a confounding curmudgeon surrounded by those who merely parrot him or say nothing at all. It took me several days to peck slowly through early chapters, which is why I was hesitant to award this five feathers. However, once I pushed through that opening and saw a greater world expand, everything took off in a way that made me unable to put the text down.
This book is worth sticking with, and ended up being one of my favorite reads of 2015. It has so many wonderful strings to unravel, doing so over the course of eight years, a war, and journeys through worlds. Clarke created something that feels so real and complete that I’m a little amazed there has not been a follow-up to her creation yet, even after 11 years.
To wrap it up: read this book, and stay with this book. I almost wish it would stop worming its way about my brain because I fear it will make whatever I tackle next seem pale in comparison!