“It is not an age for magic or scholarship, is it sir? Tradesmen prosper, sailors, politicians, but not magicians. Our time is past.”
It’s been ages since I’ve done a book review, hasn’t it? Well, that’s probably because Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is enormously long, over 1000 pages. It’s the story of two magicians (can you guess their names?) trying to revive the cause of English magic, which has not been practised in England for over 400 years. It’s written, interestingly enough, as a cross between an alternate history – with footnotes and references and everything – and an 18th century-style Gothic novel. (Oh, did I mention it’s set in the early 19th century?)
I enjoyed reading this. Although there isn’t really any sense of narrative drive, of all the events leading up to some cataclysmic denouement, this only adds to the sense of historicity (yes, that is a word, apparently). The best thing about this novel, really, is the atmosphere, the bookishness and the inventive magical fairytales that find their way in to the footnotes. Oh, and the subtle ironies that come from an author writing in 2004 through the perspective of an 18th century writer: things like feminism, racism and Anglocentrism.
A few little things: near the beginning of the novel, a character says “What, after all, is the worst that can happen?” Which, as we all know, is like a red rag to a bull. It’s like Luke Skywalker saying “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”, or the Doctor saying “What could possibly go wrong?” Something bad is going to happen now you’ve said that, and possibly because you’ve said it.
The worst part of the novel comes near the end, when up until then everything has been fairly genteel and civilised…and then we get this:
The left side of Drawlight’s head burst open, like an egg or an orange.
Eww! That’s sounds a lot more like Stephen King than 18th century Gothic. (As a matter of fact, there is a Mrs Delgado in the story, briefly.)
And, finally, guess who endorses the book on the back cover and is mentioned in the acknowledgements? Yes, Mr Neil Gaiman. Seriously. He gets everywhere. It’s quite scary actually.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is excellent if you’re looking for a long, leisurely read, a kind of fantasy that feels real. But if you prefer swords and magical duels to the death, maybe go read something else.