Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury, 2003).

This could well be my very favorite fantasy novel... not that there's a whole mess of competition, as I generally don't care much for the genre. I reread it recently, and it took a little while. My edition is more than 1000 pages long; it took several days to finish. I didn't mind at all. It's an epic story that takes place over the course of more than a decade. It shouldn't be read in a single sitting.

The novel is an alternate history that suggests sometime in the 15th Century, magic was somewhat common to England, but it fell into disuse, neglect, and not a little embarrassment, after the "Raven King," John Uskglass, abdicated his strange claim to a throne of sorts, incorporating the north of England and some of the kingdoms of Fairie. Centuries later, in the early 1800s, a recluse called Mr Norrell decides it is time for English magic to return, but only on his terms.

Not long after Norrell sets himself up in London society and finds ways of getting in good with the government, he takes on a brash pupil, the talented and slightly arrogant Jonathan Strange. He, in turn, is asked by the government to go to Spain and assist the Duke of Wellington in the war against Napoleon. Unbeknownst to both men, an earlier act of magic by Norrell has had amazing and tragic consequences. The wife of Sir Walter Pole lives half her day in our world, exhausted and entranced, and the other half in Fairie, where a thistle-haired gentleman slowly - very slowly - plots to restore magic to Earth in his own way...

The story itself is absolutely fantastic and huge fun, and I can't wait until the TV adaptation (January of next year, they say...?), but the way that this book is written is part of the joy of the story. It's full of archaic spelling and sentence construction, and punctuated throughout with lengthy footnotes. Some readers have been seen to complain about them, missing the simplicity behind them. Many are effectively short stories set in the same world. Highly recommended for readers with a couple of weeks free.

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