Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 30, 2005

January was a rough month for me and I needed a break from all the ?heavy? nonfiction I usually read, so I picked up Susanna Clarke?s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a well-received fantasy novel. I?m normally not much of a fantasy reader, but I was in the mood for something fanciful and besides, JS&MN isn?t really fantasy. It contains fantastic things like magicians, Raven Kings, and faeries but belongs more to the 19th century British novel genre?more Jane Austen than JRR Tolkien. (Clarke lists Austen as her favorite author on the book?s site.)

And it?s just plain good, whatever the genre. The simple bold cover drew me in (it looks like the font used is a close cousin to Caslon Antique), but the plot kept me in ?I can?t put it down? mode until I had finished. A surprise was how clever and funny Clarke?s writing was?I found myself laughing out loud several times at the book?s cutting deadpan wit. The book weighs in at ~780 pages, but my only disappointment upon finishing was that the story was over?I felt like I?d just gotten to know the characters and wanted to follow them on all sorts of adventures. Luckily, Clarke is working on a sequel of sorts, according to the book?s web site:

The next book will be set in the same world and will probably start a few years after Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell finishes. I feel very much at home in the early nineteenth century and am not inclined to leave it. I doubt that the new book will be a sequel in the strictest sense. There are new characters to be introduced, though probably some old friends will appear too. I?d like to move down the social scale a bit. Strange and Norrell were both rich, with pots of money and big estates. Some of the characters in the second book have to struggle a bit harder to keep body and soul together. I expect there?ll be more about John Uskglass, the Raven King, and about how magic develops in England.

The first chapter is online if you?d like to read it and Metacritic has several reviews.

P.S. For fun, here are Amazon?s Statistically Improbable Phrases for this book: new manservant, madhouse attendants, fairy roads, practical magician.

Reader comments

Anthony BakerMar 30, 2005 at 9:20PM

Aw, man.

I’m now going to have to read it. I, too, was taken in by the cover, the idea of the story, the point in time, but with a one-year-old, work-related projects, 128 RSS feeds, and everything else that draws my attention, I’d been opting for shorter reads (like Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything).

Now I’ll have to pull this book off the night stand and give it a solid go.

Your review makes me think back to Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which also was a thrilling read throughout and made me bummed to see it end.

Speaking of which — after this, I’ll then need to take Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver off the nightstand and start to read that one, too.

Alex MillerMar 30, 2005 at 9:30PM

I read this book a while ago, and I think it’s the best book I’ve ever read.

ShahidMar 30, 2005 at 10:35PM

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while.

liaMar 30, 2005 at 10:35PM

People have been recommending this to me since before it came out so I finally picked this up the other day. New Yorkers should go to Strand if they’re looking to buy it, they have it on sale for a few dollars less than Amazon and it’s currently on display near the register so you don’t have to worry about losing the rest of your day in there.

(Jason, if you feel like reading some Stephenson or Gibson next, just let me know!)

Susannah GardnerMar 30, 2005 at 10:39PM

I’m about two hundred pages short of finishing the book. I had it out from the library after being on the reserve list for six months and just couldn’t get it finished before the next in line was up. So now I have actually purchased a copy. It’s a pleasure to own a book with a cover like that. I’ve seen a version with a black cover and one with a cream cover (mine’s the black), but I haven’t figured out the significance of the difference. Any one know? My copy from the library had black-edged pages, which was very cool.

RyanMar 30, 2005 at 11:34PM

I’m currently reading Jonathan Strange et. al. and am thoroughly enjoying it. If you think you might be up for a little more fantasy next time check out Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. You won’t be disappointed (this coming from someone whose favorite book is Infinite Jest and isn’t all that into fantasy).

fleacircusMar 31, 2005 at 2:39AM

I was amused but not wowed by JS&MN.

My feeling was that the story derails when Strange goes to Spain for what seems like an age. I’m not sure it ever fully recovers from that; it has a few good stretches but chapter to chapter it feels like a jumble that can’t decide when to end.

The stupidity of Strange was disappointing. He had no curiosity or suspicion of the most important magical event of the time (Lady Pole’s resurrection). This spell occurs early in the book, provides almost all the interesting tension, but does nothing but loom for hundreds of pages. Strange is unable to spot a spell on his wife or Lady Pole, staring him in the face for months; but is very canny when visiting the (English) King. Also I don’t feel that there is any good explanation of why, of all the Gentleman’s enchantments, the darkness on Strange would be the one to remain after the GWTDH’s death.

Good writing and an interesting book, though.

heatherMar 31, 2005 at 3:09AM

the audible.com version is a good listen (all 32 hours). i second the his dark materials recommendation (audible.com version of this is spectacular).

joaobambuMar 31, 2005 at 3:55AM

Thanks for posting this! Recently, I have been reading way too much hypertext. However, after my birthday party this past Sunday (the part where at 2am, my roommate walks into my house via the side door and breaks my Linksys Wireless-G USB Network Adaptor!), I found myself OFFLINE for a few days.

Suddenly, I found myself listening to more music (but paying attention to it) and finding a better use for new books I bought on my shelf, other than just eye-candy.

I am going to read this book as well I think, because from what I read so far; seems quite interesting.

Recommend Wendell Berry’s Freedom, Sex, and Community (just picked that up at a used book store). And I also bought a Orwell “unauthorized” biography there which brought some suprising revelations…

Read on, peoples!

KeithMar 31, 2005 at 4:11AM

Well, this cements the fact that I suffer from ADHD. (I blame the Web). I liked the book and had really, really high hopes, but it was just too slow for me. I quit about 3/4 of the way in, just got a bit…boring. But I recommend it anyway as I think it might just be me.

I’ve mentioned it to quite a few people and almost everyone who’s read it loves it.

There is no doubt the writing is top notch, but…IMHO (which doesn’t count for much) the story wasn’t anything special. There are times when it gets really interesting, only to bog down…

There were a few mentions of Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Now that is an amazing series of books. I’d also suggest the Bartimaeus books by Jonathan Stroud.

Both series are “children’s” books, but the writing is fabulous.

mcfMar 31, 2005 at 6:19AM

I quit reading after about 200 pages— I realized it was really, really depressing me, and that maybe it would be a good idea to stop before I started having suicidal urges. Plus, the elf/fairy/whatever he was guy scared the crap out of me.

John FrostMar 31, 2005 at 8:51AM

I think we’re at a unique point in literary history where so many books from the sci-fi/fantasy realm are receiving popular and critical acclaim (from some at least). While this can be attributed somewhat to the mainstreaming of geekness, it still wouldn’t happen without the talented authors to provide the material. I am quite pleased to see the likes of Gibson, Clarke, and Steaphenson (and even Rowling and Pullman) busting through genre barriers with their most recent works and would love to hear about other authors that fall into the same patterns.

Peter FlaschnerMar 31, 2005 at 8:55AM

Well, I guess I know what I’m going to be listening to for the next month. Just last night I was looking at this on audible, wondering whether I should commit the time. It’s like you’re reading my mind here Jason - very scary indeed.

TerenceMar 31, 2005 at 12:24PM

I read Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell about a month ago, when my aunt gave it to me out of nowhere. It totally sucked me in, and I couldn’t stop reading it. The sense that all these things really happened and just were decided by historians to be not really worth the time to recount was really something unique. And it WAS really funny! Clarke seemed to be channeling Oscar Wilde in some parts. Also I love the book itself, with its simple black-and-white cover and rough page edges. All in all a book so different from any other, it will be a good read for anybody, regular readers, non-fans of books, fans of literature, fans of science fiction, fans of neither. I can’t wait for the sequel!

TerenceMar 31, 2005 at 12:25PM

P.S. the footnotes were fantastic

Grant BarrettMar 31, 2005 at 3:09PM

Sorry to say this is the first book I quit reading out of boredom in, well, ever, though I’m no stranger to thousand-page fiction. I’ve thought about it in the months since and decided that the two main factors for putting it down forever were that, first, despite the magic, the mood of the book was unmagical: I was unsurprised, unastonished, unamused, and unrewarded for my slogging. Second, I couldn’t find a character to root for. I couldn’t find a way to care if anyone lived or died (although the young beautiful wife was at the top of the list of candidates).

emilyMar 31, 2005 at 3:36PM

someone whose favorite book is Infinite Jest and isn’t all that into fantasy

Ryan, this made me laugh, b/c I am the same way, but then again there’s a speculative egde to DFWallace, wouldn’t you say? As a kid I ran screaming from Tolkein, CSLewis, L’engle, etc. and straight to historical fiction: “based on a true story” was my motto. I read Mark Twain, Patrick O’Brian, and Jane Austen in middle school, became a John McPhee disciple in HS. Fell off the wagon into magical realism in college (GGMarquez, of course), and, I’m not ashamed to say, in 1998 Harry P. wooed me into trying Pratchett, Pullman, Gibson, Gaiman, et al.

All of which is to say, Jonathan Strange is a perfect blend of literary fiction, historical tidbits, and the fantastic. I took it on a camping trip and was so freaked out by TGWTDH I read the last 200 pages in one go, which I hadn’t done in 15 years. Childermass rocks!

TrevorMar 31, 2005 at 5:28PM

I wanted to like this book more…but I just couldn’t. I thought the ending was a bit anti-climactic, there was no “hero” and the writing style made it a difficult read. I almost gave up several times, but I thought somehow something fabulous would happen in the end and I would be rewarded for sticking it out. That didn’t happen.

Donnie JeterMar 31, 2005 at 5:32PM

I’m also ready for a break from the non-fiction. I’m about half-way through “BLINK,” it looks like I’ll pick up this book once I finish.

Giles TurnbullMar 31, 2005 at 7:03PM

I was given this book as a Christmas gift, started it on New Year’s Eve, and by the looks of things finished it the same night you did, Jason.

The comments mentioning boredom are fair enough; there were long stretches where very little seems to happen. You think these are building up to something important, but often they’re just adding colour to the characters or the plot. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just explains, I think, why some readers say it gets boring.

I found myself bemused by some things, especially Norrell and Strange’s big bust-up; what was their problem, exactly? A chapter or so after it happened, I could barely remember, nor care much.

It’s still an excellent and inventive story, though. Some characters (Lady Pole, Childermass, Vinculus) are full of life. Although it took me months to read the first two thirds of the book, I finished off the final, more exciting, third in a single evening.

flaimeMar 31, 2005 at 9:10PM

Well, at least I’m not the only one chiming in to say that I wasn’t terribly impress with Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrel. I thought it was incredibly slow, overall. Her short stories are much better writing.

rustyApr 01, 2005 at 9:09AM

I just read this a couple months ago, and while it wasn’t the greatest book I’ve ever read, it was very good. Particularly noteworthy, to me, was the feeling that if this story was written by 100 different authors, 99 of those versions would suck. We are fortunate that this is the one that doesn’t.

rustyApr 01, 2005 at 9:11AM

Damn. I’m new to this whole web thing. ;-)

The link was supposed to go here.

CephalopodApr 01, 2005 at 1:36PM

Tangential comment: When I first saw Jonathan Strange on the shelf I thought it was a reprint of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Something about the Caslon Antique ampersand, I guess.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.