Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

jonathan strange and mr. norrell cover

I am so proud of myself for finishing this book.  Hooray! 

My friend Vicki bought this book for me.  Wasn't that nice of her?  It's supposed to be an "adult" version of Harry Potter--and if you interpret adult to mean "hang on to your granny panties, because this is going to take a loooooooong time," (rather than, "HP:  the Skinemax version") you'd be right.  This book is almost 800 pages long.  And it's small type.  And it's not 800 pages of action-packed suspense, either.  Which brings me to the point of this mini-rant:  I object to the term "Harry Potter for adults."  Like I have so much more time now that I'm an adult to read really, really long books.  Right.  Now that I have things like a job, and bills, and responsibilities, I find myself thinking, "Hey, you know what I need?  A book so thick and dense with plotlines that I will completely lose track of what the main plot is in the middle, or even wonder what the original plot was."

But in the end, I did finish it.  So it can be done!

The central idea of the book is what if--what if the Napoleonic Wars were won, not purely by military finese on the part of the English, but by magic?  The book takes place during the Late Georgian/Regency eras, and centers around two magicians who were prophecied by the Raven King (the greatest magician in English history) to bring magic back to England.  The first is Mr. Norrell, an older gentleman who sets out to help win the war against Napoleon using magic.  The second is Jonathan Strange, a younger man that Norrell takes on as his pupil.

However, the war with Napoleon isn't really the central plotline of the book.  Oh no.  The true heart of the tale lies in a deal Mr. Norrell makes with a fairy king, The Man With Thistle-Down Hair (I'm planning on naming my first-born son this, btw), to bring a young woman back from the dead.  He doesn't do this out of the goodness of his heart; he does it in order to gain the attention of her fiance, an MP, in the hopes that the war department will finally start taking magic seriously and allow him to help with the war effort.  And, like most deals made purely in self-interest, it turns out to be a deal with the devil.  The Man With Thistle-Down Hair uses the young woman, who quickly marries her fiance and becomes Lady Pole, as an entry point into the human world, where he wreaks all sorts of evil and mischief (as fairies are wont to do).

The first half of the book is hard to get through, or at least it was for me (I'll explain more about that later).  However, the story starts to get really interesting by page 450--in fact, right around the time when Arabella Strange, Jonathan Strange's wife, is captured by The Man With Thistle-Down Hair.  After that point, I really enjoyed the book.  Here's what I liked most about it:

John Childermass

Childermass is the sexiest thing, animate or inanimate, in this book!  All right, he's the only sexy thing in this book.  But damn, rawr.  ;)  He's smart and cunning; at first he appears to be amoral, but then acts with more honor as the book progresses; he has a checkered and mysterious past, with brief stints (that we know of so far) as a pickpocket and a sailor (which I'm going to just assume means pirate, because that makes him even sexier); he can read tarot cards, which is a very attractive feature in a man; during the course of the book he is shot and stabbed; and he is the only character who ever meets the Raven King (although he immediately forgets it).  If this was Ivanhoe, Childermass would be Brian de Bois-Guilbert.  In the romance novel version follow-up to this book, which I've already written in my head, Childermass and Lady Pole fall in love and have a torrid affair that shocks all of London society.  Poor Sir Walter Pole!  But really, how can he compete against Childermass?  Not possible.  He should just give up now.

Jonathan Strange's Pupils

Jonathan Strange takes on three pupils later in the book.  Two of them are young aristocrats and absolute boneheads.  They're freaking hilarious.  It's like watching Larry and Mo trying to do magic.

The Society of York Magicians

As I mentioned before, at the beginning of the book, there is no magic in England.  There are, however, societies of magicians who research magic, hold conferences on magic, debate magic, and write articles about magic, all without ever having tried, or having any intention of trying, to do magic.  I have to admit this seemed very reminiscent of art historians to me.

And here's what I didn't like about the book:

Mr. Norrell

Mr. Norrell is the magician who opens the book.  Unfortunately for us, he's a terrible character.  From the description on the book jacket, I expected him to be a magical version of Dr. House--i.e., entertainingly grumpy, terrifyingly intelligent, and if not a good person, a person with his own code of honor.  However, Norrell is nothing like that.  He's a cautious scaredy cat who's a terrible judge of character, and who doesn't care about anyone but himself and his books!  There are no redeeming qualities to Mr. Norrell.  Part of the reason it's so hard to get into the book is that Norrell is the main character for the first third of the story, and he's completely unlikable and unsympathetic.

The Footnotes

Yes, this book has footnotes.  A lot of footnotes.  I strongly suggest you skim over them or skip them altogether, or your head may explode.

The Ending

The ending leaves many questions unanswered.  What happens to Lascelles in Fairy?  What does the new book by the Raven King say?  If The Man With Thistle-Down Hair's dead, why is Lady Pole still alive and the darkness around Strange and Norrell still intact?  These questions are kind of annoying, because hellooooo, you've just written 780 + pages, you couldn't add a few more to wrap things up???  But the most disappointing thing about the ending was the meeting between Jonathan and Arabella.  It left me, in all honesty, clusterfucked.  I don't want to say what happened, because that would spoil the ending for people who haven't read the book yet, but let me put it like this:  imagine you're having sex.  And you've been waiting a really, reaaalllllllly long time to have it.  And you're about to go O when the other person says, "Well, it's been fun," and leaves.  Like wtf--could you at least give me some emotional closure, here?!?!?!?!  Argh.

At first I thought that this was a pretty good book, overall, but I think that was just the thrill of having actually finished it and not needing to look at it again.  Now that a few months has passed since I read this book, I've decided I hate it.  The end.  Sorry, Vicki.

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