Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Susanna Clarke

Getting through this hefty tome of “historical fantasy” is already no small feat for the average reader. My current commute rarely offers up a seat on the subway, so for weeks I was balancing this 700+ page hardcover library book on my pole-grasping arm, often finding my wrist a bit numb for a several minutes afterwards. I’d say it was the 200-page mark when I stopped wondering if I shouldn’t leave this for several rainy weekends.

Clarke’s novel is ambitious in many regards in addition to size: the magical nature of her world makes it difficult to avoid comparing to other magical British works (though her magic is done by magicians and has a dusty, scholarly nature) and the setting during the Napoleonic wars with many historical figures certainly required a lot of research and a lot of making that research unapparent (not that I know enough about that time to judge accuracy). These elements of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell are great but what is truly excellent about this novel is the characters.

There are perhaps just a few supporting characters who don’t really evolve or change during the story. The rest are all nuanced and transformable, which makes it all the richer. Several characters switched back and forth from the arenas of likeability and annoyability, relationships shift and deepen.

Early on, I felt like the story was fairly predictable and kind of guessed what was happening before things happened. But the end is amazing. You might read this whole book feeling it’s just a really long story, but by the end the complexities suddenly come into view. That sort of development can only come from such a long work. Every once in a while, it’s fun to delve into a book like this; though its length (and excessive footnotes) may turn a lot of people off, it’s lighthearted enough to make the effort worthwhile.