Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
This was… not what I was expecting.
If I was being unkind, I would be tempted to use the word ‘interminable.’ But that’s not really fair because after all, I did finish it, and I mostly enjoyed reading it too. So it wasn’t unbearable. But it did go on for far longer than I thought made sense.
It’s not what I was expecting because this is, in a way, much more like a history book than a novel. It didn’t have the beats that I was expecting; there’s not really that much of a climax, in the end, which was deeply surprising. To be honest I’m a bit surprised that this won quite so many accolades when it was released. Is it because it was doing something quite new, and this is like kids today watching The Matrix and being all “yeh, so?”? Because I’m feeling a bit… yeh, so?
I was intrigued early on by Mr Norrell, unpleasant as he is… and yet, not that unpleasant. I wondered about Mr Childermass… who ended up being a bit surprising, which I appreciated, but somehow was still quite a muted character. Sir Walter Pole was a bit flat. Jonathan Strange… well. I was somewhat bemused that we got his childhood story, since that seemed out of character for the novel overall – no one else gets that sort of background. I understand Strange is meant to be the focal character, but it still felt odd, coming after so many chapters of Mr Norrell. I liked him overall – more than Mr Norrell, which is to be expected, since Strange gets a lot more action and is presented more sympathetically; I really liked him over in Spain. Stephen Black did feel like a rounded character, but it was quite uncomfortable to see him bullied by the man with the thistledown hair.
That’s the men. As for the women… there was a serious lack of agency going on here. Lady Pole is, I think, a catalyst for an enormous amount of the action, but she doesn’t do anything. She just… exists. Arabella Strange has a bit more action, but is still not an instigator. And that about does it for the women.
I think one of the things that felt odd is that there is no clearly discernible villain. Now I don’t mind a story without a villain, but I think I was expecting one – so that’s another way this story isn’t what I was expecting. Which is therefore partly my fault. But also the story appears to be setting itself up to have a villain, and then wrong-footed me. I don’t think it’s surprising that I was unbalanced.
Also, I wanted a lot more about the Raven King. For me, that figure just ended up being too mysterious, such that I felt a bit frustrated.
I did like the world that Clarke created – using the real 19th century England and adding a detailed and convincing history of magic. I loved the idea of northern and southern England having been ruled by different kings, and that the north still sees itself as separate; this is believable. That practical magic would have been allowed to fall by the wayside basically makes sense if it’s been dwindling anyway… and that the existing ‘magicians’ would all be these pompous greybeards who wouldn’t touch real magic is brilliant. The glimpses into the politics were interesting although I didn’t feel that they added much.
I’m glad that I’ve read it. I can’t imagine that I’ll re-read it. I guess I might lend my copy to someone at some point… maybe if I know someone who’s got a real thing for Napoleonic stories? Hmm, perhaps my mother, now that I think about it.