February 1, 2014

Review: Doctor... wait... Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell

This review will have some mild spoilers. I will try not to give any major or specific plot points away, and will speak more generally about the world, the characters, and plot concepts.

Dr. Stra—crap—Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a book that I had known about for at least a couple of years. A co-worker of mine, who has very similar tastes to mine, absolutely gushed about it whenever it came up (and sometimes when it didn't). I knew that it won some awards (Hugo Award, World Fantasy Award, Mythopoeic Award, Locus Award for Best First Novel, and British Book Award for Best Newcomer), what I didn't know that it was also longlisted for the Man Booker and shortlisted for a few others.

So yeah, this book had some hype to it.

Despite that, it took me a long time to get to reading it. I can't really say why. I was told it had magic and fairy tales in a historical setting, and I like ALL of those things. Mind you it doesn't really matter how long it took me to read it, because I've read it now.

First, It's A Masterpiece Of Literature

I'm a bit weird, in that I can get through a book solely on the writing. It can have boring characters, poor plot, dull setting, and be written in a dry tone, but if the author can construct sentences using clever (to me) syntax, language, and rhythm I'll still read through the whole thing with a smile on my face. Dr Strange—dammit!—Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was not boring or dull or dry, and it was masterfully written. 

It's set in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, and finishes some years after it. Two magicians, first Mr Norrell and then Doct... Jonathan Strange, reveal themselves to Britain as 'practical' magicians (not to be confused with the 'theoretical' magicians that study the theory and history of magic for its own pleasure), ready and willing to restore magic to Britain. For in this book, magic has a long and proud history in Britain, and the book cleverly adds all kinds of footnotes feeding extra information on that history, rather than filling the book with awkward info dumps.

As part of their efforts, they help the British government as much as they can. Doctor (fuck!) Jonathan Strange serves under the Duke of Wellington as he makes war in Spain against the invading French. Norrell conjures phantoms to harass and scare the French Navy, scries out the location of enemy fleets and armies, and brings a prominent politician's wife back from the dead. They also come to deal with the Fairies, some of whom threaten them, their loved ones, and the King of Britain himself. 

Last, there is the tension between Dr Jonathan—just Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, who acts as the former's tutor in magic. The two have much different views on magic, how it should be wielded, how to view it's history, and actually about everything related to magic. Norrell wants magic to be studied solely from books, specifically books he approves of, and he most certainly does not approve of older, wilder styles of magic that are related to the semi-mythical Raven King (Britain's most famous, powerful magician) and the Fairies. Doct-Jonathan Strange, on the other hand, craves adventure, experimentation, and the glory from Britain's historical magicians and what/how they practiced. 

It's Definitely A Good Book, But...

Everything I mentioned above constitute the main elements of the book: Norrell and Strange (from now on he's just 'Strange') bringing magic back, feud that erupts between the two, the Fairies interfering in the affairs of humans, the war in Continental Europe against Napoleon, and all the history/backstory/nature of magic in Britain. All of them are in their own way interesting, and I enjoyed them all to varying degrees. The problem I had is that none of those elements ever seemed to have any depth to them in the book. 

Strange being part of the army under Wellington, for the two different stages in the Napoleonic Wars, comprised only one small part of the book, and what got the most treatment was the different spells and magic Strange did at Wellington's behest. And those scenes were pretty brief: Wellington would present some problem he and the army were having, Strange would mull it over for a while, have some epiphany while reading through books about what spell might work, he'd do it, people would be some mixture of amazed/horrified... rinse, repeat until the war is over.

The magic itself was not at the level of other fantasy books, like Sanderson or Rothfuss. Basically, you had to read books and recite some spells. There was no internal logic or restrictions - as long as you had the book in front of you, or someone to tell it to you, you could do the spell. Except, of course, those occasions when Fairies or Strange (and some others at the end) seem to be able to use magic without any spells, but in a manner that's never explained at all. 

Norrell and Strange, and indeed all of the characters, are very repetitive in their behaviours and dialogues, without any real development. The most development, and it isn't much, is seen in some of the minor characters. In fact a lot of the characters were very similar, they all acted in that stereotypical way we all imagine the British to have acted and spoken "back in the day". 

Conclusion: I Wanted More Of It All

This was a very large book. The mass market edition is more than 1000 pages, and with all of the little footnotes in tiny writing, it crams a lot into the book. I almost wish that Susanna Clarke diminished one or more of those main elements, cut some minor ones out entirely, and gave more focus and depth to the others. After finishing the book, despite really liking it, I didn't feel satisfied. It's like whenever I eat fish for a meal... I could eat an entire, large fish and afterwards I'd still want to eat a whole pizza, it just isn't filling. Everything just brushed the surface, and we never got to really dive in to her characters or story.

And on those consecutive metaphors, I grant this book a 7.5 out of 10. Worth the read, and I know a lot of people love this book. I think the lack of depth is something that's a personal preference of mine that made me feel slightly disappointed that the book wasn't better.

I might have given it a higher ranking, but I'm annoyed by the fact I always want to call it Dr. Strange and Mr Norrell, not Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.


  1. I'm glad that you at least somewhat enjoyed it.

    To be fair, I think part of what appealed to me is that it's set in my favourite period of history (and even briefly mentioned the recently deceased William Pitt the Younger, who has always fascinated me but is not that well known). The book also appealed to me in that I love uniqueness, particularly in a genre like fantasy where it's very easy to fall into certain genre tropes, and I found Strange & Norrell to be very unique stylistically, with such a sense of humour to it. I was definitely more drawn in by the style of writing though and agree that it could use more depth in terms of characters and plot (or possibly an editor). It will be interesting to see what the BBC adaptation does with it.

    It's not fantasy, but for masterful use of language Dorothy Dunnett is my new Queen of fiction. Her Lymond Chronicles series are wonderful books set during the renaissance and taking place all across Europe, but largely against the backdrop of the Anglo-Scottish wars, and feature a hero who has depth and flaws, and some fantastic female characters. It takes a bit to get into, and is very much a slow build, but once I was hooked I was hooked.

  2. Hmm I'll definitely have to look into that book. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Personally Lord Palmerston was always my favourite British Prime Minister.