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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell 170

Posted by timothy
from the does-it-have-enough-sex dept.
jmweeks writes "It comes in a black edition and a white edition, and I suppose this symbolizes the two schools of thought warring within. If you've been in any chain book store this month, you've seen its emblem--the raven in flight, the big swirling ampersand. Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is something extraordinary: many adult fantasy novels are taken seriously by their readers, the nerds among us; Strange & Norrell is taken seriously by its publisher and its critics as well. It is a small complaint, then, to say that it is taken perhaps a bit too seriously by its author." Read on for the rest of Weeks' review.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
author Susanna Clarke
pages 780
publisher Bloomsbury Publishing
rating 7
reviewer Jose M. Weeks
ISBN 1582344167
summary A serious novel of fantasy and magic.

It is one of the great themes of fantasy, maybe even the theme: that some art or technology of incredible power has been lost, lost for ages--and just now, just in the present, it has been resurrected. We seek awakening, we seek renewal--I don't know, we seek something, because from The Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time to Stargate, this theme resonates.

In Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel, the lost art is magic. This is England as the Nineteenth Century opens, and magic--founded in this country by a king who was once its strongest practitioner, a king who reigned three hundred years--is not practiced any longer. Oh, hundreds of magicians still argue vigilantly over its customs and methods and history, but the casting of actual spells is beyond them.

Enter Gilbert Norrell, a strange little recluse of a man, who hoards books and does his damnedest to end the career of any magician he can find. Who is also, by the way, the first Englishman to do magic in centuries. Mr. Norrell's purpose is to restore magic to England, provided it is studied and practiced under his terms, and preferably by no one but him.

Jonathan Strange, a young man who stumbles upon magic on a whim, who is to become Norrell's colleague, student, and adversary, has something slightly different in mind.

The subject here is not good versus evil, but a clash of ego and philosophy. The novel's villains are driven by fear, weakness, and self interest; its heroes by ambition and wonder. This complexity is what makes the novel a work of serious fiction, what prevents it from being an epic. Epics are fate-driven and rarely concerned with shades of motivation. Characters act because they must act, they must save the world or all is lost, etc., etc. Strange and Norrell want with everything they have to restore magic to England, to found a school of thought, to--well, many other things that I won't spoil--and even if the whole story has been foretold, even if it is fated, it is a story that stems from their intentions.

This is not my complaint. That it is not epic I find refreshing. That it is character-driven I find engaging. In a book about magic, about the re-awakening of mysticism, my complaint is that there is so very little that is spellbinding. Jonathan Strange in particular seems to be driven by his own imagination, and yet he seems limited and his spells tend to do little more that move things about.

The novel takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, and not long after the magicians present themselves to society, they become employed in fighting back the French. This leads to a scene suggesting great imagination, a port blockaded by ships, sails, and even a crew, all made of mist. Yet once on the ground, Mr. Strange finds himself mostly occupied by making roads and then tearing them up again. This may be useful, but for a magician it seems petty.

That said, Clarke handles the particulars of spell-casting rather well. As a matter of plot, the novel's magic must follow certain rules: Spells must have limitations, bad results must be possible and irreversible, there must be no "take-backs." This is why, in the classic short story "The Monkey's Paw," the father isn't allowed to wish never to have made any wishes--we as readers don't accept stories that "cheat" that way. In Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Clarke skirts on the edge of cheating (she allows resurrection), but never really falls in. There is also the danger that spell-casting will devolve into a game of Mornington Crescent, which is to say a conspiracy among the magicians to pretend each isn't speaking complete gibberish. This Clarke nearly overdoes.

You may have heard that this novel is, well, Harry Potter for adults. Don't believe it. It's true that Clarke shares a publisher with J.K. Rowling, and that Rowling's success almost certainly affected the publisher's interest in pushing this novel, but the two authors share very little in terms of style. Clarke's work is witty but cold, while Rowling's prose is anything but subtle and a great deal warmer. I'm not the first, I'm sure, to make this comparison: I can think of few writers Clarke's work more clearly resembles than Jane Austen. Considering the setting of this novel, however, that's probably deliberate.

The main task of a writer of fantasy is to construct a new and different world, and in this Clarke has succeeded. Her overwhelming footnotes, the dozens of side tales told by one character or another, the books and customs and politics of an England not quite as it is, but wholly consistent unto itself--these build a believable whole, they tell an engrossing story, they suggest perhaps something more.

There is talent here, a great deal of it. I believe, on the evidence of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, that Susanna Clarke does have some great books in her. But for the time being, with this, her first novel, we'll have to settle for simply "good."


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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 24, 2004 @04:07PM (#10343691)
    What, you mean like the Bible?
    • by cryptogryphon (547264) on Friday September 24, 2004 @04:17PM (#10343793)
      a novel the bible is not, and it only rates adult 'cos of the sex.
    • HaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHaHa!!!!!!
      Man I haven't laughed that hard since Mississippi repealed Pi !!!!!
    • What, you mean like the Bible?

      Whee! Such hilarious, sophisticated humor :) And so original; nothing like it on /. or in pop culture ...

      But seriously, have a read. You might rethink things:

      The Bible (NIV) [biblegateway.com]

  • by Black Parrot (19622) on Friday September 24, 2004 @04:10PM (#10343722)


    > The main task of a writer of fantasy is to construct a new and different world

    E.g., one where supermodels chase after Slashdotters in hopes of learning Linux and having their babies.

  • by FunWithHeadlines (644929) on Friday September 24, 2004 @04:11PM (#10343740) Homepage
    "The subject here is not good versus evil, but a clash of ego and philosophy. The novel's villains are driven by fear, weakness, and self interest; its heroes by ambition and wonder. This complexity is what makes the novel a work of serious fiction, what prevents it from being an epic. Epics are fate-driven and rarely concerned with shades of motivation. Characters act because they must act, they must save the world or all is lost, etc., etc."

    Not only was this an excellent review (thank you for submitting it), but I found the above passage very encouraging on a personal level. I am writing a fantasy novel (or series of novels) based on what I, as a teen, found personally was my only real complaint about LoTR: I wanted more in-depth characterization. No, that's not entirely fair, for LoTR certainly has some in-depth characters, but you get the idea. I wanted to not write yet-another-fanboy-saves-the-world epic, but to explore on an adult level the sorts of emotions you or I would find ourselves if we were in that situation.

    I've written and edited the first book, over 400 pages, and now have started in on book two. I've queried a dozen literary agents who specialize in fantasy fiction, but I've yet to find one who is willing to even read a sample. They all sent back rejection notes that were remarkably similar: Too busy, best of luck with someone else.

    Oh well, I will keep trying. In the meantime, I'm very glad to hear that someone likes complexity, shades of motivation, adult-level emotional responses. That's been my exact goal, and if there is a market for a Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell book, there should be one for mine as well (I hope, anyway). Thanks for the encouragement, jmweeks, even though you didn't know that's what you were doing!

    • by qbzzt (11136) on Friday September 24, 2004 @04:16PM (#10343791)
      Try Baen. They do not require an agent, and they are looking for new authors.
      • Thank you for the tip. They are actually my #1 target once I got beyond the try-to-find-an-agent stage, which is usually required at most publishing houses. The only reason I didn't try Baen yet is I read they have about an eight-month wait to hear if you will get accepted, and they prefer you do not do multiple submissions. So I thought I would try the agents first, and then when it came time to hitting the publishers directly Baen would be my first stop. I like their philosophy a LOT.

        And, well, fran

        • Once you get an agent, you may find that other publishing houses have an eight-month wait, also.
          • Oh, I'm sure you're right. But at least then you have someone working for you, and someone who would have contacts at multiple houses. What I was afraid of was contacting Baen and then having to sit back and do absolutely nothing for eight months. Then if they say No, I've accomplished nothing for eight months. That's why I did things in the order I did.
        • As a fantasy fan, I'd suggest that. Nothing more heartbreaking than having an author die in mid-trilogy. Both for the loss of their art and for never knowing how the story ends.
        • Based on the experience of a friend of the family, this is the way to go -- do your entire book, and sell it as a package.

          It took him ten years to get what turned into a trilogy written and published, but it was worth it. He is now writing for a living, and doing better financially than I expect to ever do.
        • Join Baen's Bar, test it out in the slushpile.

          Advice: Jim doesn't print Literature, he prints good stories.

          Also, a multi-volume series is not likely to get published as a first work unless the first book works well as a standalone work. too much risk for the publisher.

          But if you've got a rippin' good read, Baen is the most successful publisher of new authors in SF&F (And generally in fiction).

        • I've begun to wonder if the best thing is to at least get through the first draft of the whole book (1200 pages, I guesstimate) before peddling the edited, refined book one. Just in case I want to go back and change some things in book one. Once it's published, you can't really do that. Just talking out loud here, but suggestions welcome.

          Definitely a good idea. Apart from anything else, I understand that most publishers don't like buying a series from a new author unless there's at least a first draft of
          • "Just a quick query -- is your 1200 pages doublespaced courier 12pt, or what? 'Cause if it is, that's a monster of a book. And if it isn't, it's probably even bigger. How many volumes are you splitting it into? :)"

            The page count is my estimate of the final product, not what it is in my word processor. I know how books tend to wind up at 55-60 characters per line and 35-40 lines per page, at least in the SF/fantasy paperback arena. Book one came in at a little over 400 pages, and the outlines of books tw

        • You might like to try Tor [tor.com] also (publishers of Gene Wolfe among others). They seem pretty cool, and have a very honest guide to how they evaluate slushpile submissions, and why manuscripts get rejected:
          1. Author is functionally illiterate.
          2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don't publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.
          3. Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWor
          • Thank you for the good reminders. In discussing my manuscript with other writers, who have helped me with grammar and plot issues, I hope I'm not being immodest when I suggest I have passed the first seven rejection reasons, and at least two of the next three (is my plot unique? I took an existing archetype and twisted it my way while subverting several common elements in a way that should surprise most readers -- but hey, maybe someone else beat me to it and I don't know about it).

            So I find myself in t

            • Yeah, I think it's true that you need to be published to get published. That's why a lot of the well-known SF writers started out with short stories -- it's not such a huge risk for a magazine to include one story by an unknown writer. Even a larger fanzine might be a good place to start.

              Hey, do you have any of your writing online where I can take a look at it?
    • I've written and edited the first book, over 400 pages, and now have started in on book two. I've queried a dozen literary agents who specialize in fantasy fiction, but I've yet to find one who is willing to even read a sample. They all sent back rejection notes that were remarkably similar: Too busy, best of luck with someone else.

      Here's someone else [nomediakings.org] you might try. Jim Munroe spoke at this year's OLS [linuxsymposium.org] about independent media, Linux and free software, and self-publishing. Very interesting, and maybe helpfu
    • Gene Wolfe has often written about what is involved in starting as a science fiction author. I believe the specific essays which I am thinking of are included in "Castle of Days".

      Anyway, there two bit of advice that I remember most clearly. Subject to memory error, the first is to try to publish some short stories first - less risk for the publisher, and then they know you. Second is to look for an agent once you've a letter of interest from a publisher. If they won't help you negotiate a deal with a publ

      • Thanks for the passed-on advice. I do have four published articles already, a fact I pointed out in my letters to each agent. They are not fiction articles, of course, so that's not directly applicable to these books, but at least it should show that I have been paid as a writer.
      • try to publish some short stories first.

        This may be because, in the literary world, its generally said that everybody want's to be a poet. Those whoe can't write poetry, write short stories. Those who can't write short stories, write novels.

        The idea being that short stories are more difficult to write than novels. You have relatively small amount of space to present your story, it has to have an impact, and you can't explicitly build in the back story.

        As many novels have shown, especially in Sci-Fi, you

      • Second is to look for an agent once you've a letter of interest from a publisher.

        Good advice, but times have changed. There are only a few publishers left who will even read your work unless you already have an agent. Tor and Baen are the only big names in the SF/Fantasy field, I think.
    • I had the desire to read another set of books that I had in my youth which had excellent character development. Do check out the Guardian's of the Flame [amazon.com] series if you'd like some light, entertaining reading with quality characters.
    • But maybe you would have better success if it wasn't a fantasy novel. If you really want to explore on an adult level the sorts of emotions you or I would find ourselves if we were in that situation. you need to place us in a position that isn't difficult to grasp. What I'm saying is that often in fantasy or scifi books the superfoulous crap thats put in (Technological devices in scifi, wizards and magic in fantasy) gets in the way of exploring those emotions.
      • "you need to place us in a position that isn't difficult to grasp. What I'm saying is that often in fantasy or scifi books the superfoulous crap thats put in (Technological devices in scifi, wizards and magic in fantasy) gets in the way of exploring those emotions."

        Correct. Which is why my fantasy contains neither wizards nor magic. The protagonists have to work things out for themselves without being able to rely on the crutch of magic. The only fantastical elements of my fantasy are the types of char

    • OP:"...This complexity is what makes the novel a work of serious fiction, what prevents it from being an epic. Epics are fate-driven and rarely concerned with shades of motivation. Characters act because they must act, they must save the world or all is lost, etc., etc...."

      P: ...I am writing a fantasy novel (or series of novels) based on what I, as a teen, found personally was my only real complaint about LoTR: I wanted more in-depth characterization. No, that's not entirely fair, for LoTR certainly has so

      • I appreciate what you are saying, and I even tried to modify my original thought in the post. Absolutely there are fully fleshed-out characters in classic literature, and that includes LoTR. What I wanted to do was expand some areas. For example, the southern armies that came at Sauron's call at the end of the Third Age: What was their motivation? Didn't they think they were doing something good and right? Or were they just "evil"? I wanted to explore the paradox of an organization that does evil thin
        • The men of the SOuth had long standing wars with Gondor, and had been under Sauron's rule in the old days. Thats why they came. A lot of these side facts can be gleaned from the Appendices, Unfinished Tales, The Silmarilion, and his other published notes.
        • Sure, that's what writers do. Variations on themes, changes of focus, rewriting old stories in a different context, etc. As a writer, it sounds like you're doing what you should: putting your own spin (point of view) on old ideas. I'm not even opposed to the more psychoanalytic way of writing, but I shudder when someone starts saying it's more complex.

          Part of the reason I kept saying "no offense" was that, I wasn't necessarily even responding to the meaning behind what you were saying. Like I said, when

      • (I'm the reviewer.)

        I would really say that this isn't fair to epics in general. I read LoTR as an adult, and I found the characters to be very deep at times. I don't think it would have been successful if the characters were all so simply acting out of necessity.

        It was never my intention to say that epics can't have complex characters. Some do, some do not. In mainstream fiction you get characters made of cardboard and styrofoam as well as the ones that fell they may have come right out of your life.

        • I still don't agree. LoTR, which is what you used as an example, is largely character driven. There may be some sort of "fate" at work, but I don't think this is really your point. Is it fate that drives Frodo along, or Frodo? I'd say Frodo has plenty of his own motivations and makes his own decisions. I'd say that about all of the major LoTR characters, and even most of the not-so-major characters.

          It seems to me that your contrast isn't whether the characters have motivations, or whether they're more

    • "I'm very glad to hear that someone likes complexity, shades of motivation, adult-level emotional responses. That's been my exact goal, and if there is a market for a Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell book, there should be one for mine as well (I hope, anyway)."

      It's good to hear that more people are working in this direction. When I see a real-life villain say, "I am this way because I am eeeviil! ha-ha ha-ha. And I soon my forces of doom will spread around the globe!" as he rubs his hands together in a s
  • Well written review (Score:3, Interesting)

    by keshto (553762) on Friday September 24, 2004 @04:16PM (#10343782)

    For once, it was a well-written review, devoid of either childing errors or put-on verbiage.

    However, I think his final grade for the book ("good") is too harsh. Having read the description that he gave before that, I'd have gone for somewhere between "very good" to "excellent".
  • by GillBates0 (664202) on Friday September 24, 2004 @04:17PM (#10343794) Homepage Journal
    If you've been in any chain book store this month, you've seen its emblem--the raven in flight, the big swirling ampersand.

    Screenshot of book cover below:
    --------
    | & |
    | |
    | -v- |
    --------

    J/K...:)
    actual image here: http://images.amazon.com/images/P/1582344167.01.LZ ZZZZZZ.jpg
  • When you say there is a black and a white edition, you're not saying textual differences like in The Dictionary of the Khazars, right?
  • I like the idea of a lost art or power that is waiting to be discovered and used by a current generation. It's been said that there is no new art, and that it's all a reflection of the past. Still, the constant striving towards a new way to express ones self seems to be an ongoing theme in everyones' life; it gives them purpose.

    This reminds me of stories like Indiana Jones, to The Blues Brothers! Truely a universal ideal.

    ACB
  • by OutHouse (816159) on Friday September 24, 2004 @04:22PM (#10343848)
    "Mr. Norrell's purpose is to restore magic to England, provided it is studied and practiced under his terms, and preferably by no one but him. Jonathan Strange, a young man who stumbles upon magic on a whim, who is to become Norrell's colleague, student, and adversary, has something slightly different in mind. " Speculation here - I haven't read the book... but this almost sounds like proprietary versus open source type of argument???
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 24, 2004 @04:45PM (#10344094)
    In an interview by KPCC-FM, the NPR station in Pasadena, California, the author said that she was in Southern California to give a book reading at "Book Soup." She admitted that she deliberately emulated the style of Jane Austin, and set the novel in exactly the time period that Austenites are used to. She did say that more happens in it, world-wise, than in Jane Austin. She also denied any interest in doing her own screenplay, or even meeting any Hollywood people. "My agent handles that." She said. She wants to concentrate on writing her second novel, which is not a sequel or prequel. -- Professor Jonathan Vos Post
    http://magicdragon.com
    over 15,000,000 hits/year
  • In a book about magic, about the re-awakening of mysticism, my complaint is that there is so very little that is spellbinding. Jonathan Strange in particular seems to be driven by his own imagination, and yet he seems limited and his spells tend to do little more that move things about.

    Hmmm. I don't know. I haven't read the book, so I obviously can't speak to it specifically, but consider this concept for a plot: Imagine that the world we live in is our current "reality", and you actually stumble across s

  • Stolen (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    I work at a small bookstore in a local mall part-time, and we had three copies of this book. Personally, I had never heard of it before, and the cover is very nondescript. The book itself is rather large, and every one came shrink wrapped (which I thought was bizarre). My manager put them out on the shelf this way.

    One week after we got them, all three had been stolen. It would be a task, to say the least, to get that book in particular out of the store without anyone noticing (i.e. it was a bit awkward
    • It's the title Bloomsbury are putting all their weight behind for Christmas sales. The hype machine has not really got going yet, but I have head that the print run of hardback 'review copies' sent out to journalists was larger than the entire run of your average best-selling hardback novel.
    • It was in the NYTimes Book review, and got a good write-up (good enough for me, who has not read fantasy since I was about 17, to give it a try). I am guessing that the "fantasy for adults" label given to it by the Times and other reviewers attracted teens into the eddings/dragonlance type of sci-fi to it, but the $27 sticker price was too much for them. Hence, they ripped them off.

      Just to put my own two cents in on it, im halfway through, and it is "good." At times it is a bit heavy and I wonder if its
    • There have been interviews with the author all over the place. Apparently the marketing budget is quite large. The publishers think it's going to be very big.
  • My elevator pitch... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cmpalmer (234347) on Friday September 24, 2004 @04:58PM (#10344222) Homepage
    I'm about a third of the way through it now, so I can't give a full review, but I am enjoying it greatly. I bought it after reading about it on Neil Gaiman's blog, which is what inspired my elevator pitch for the book (when my wife asked what it was like):

    "It's like Jane Austin or Charles Dickens writing a Neil Gaiman book about English magicians."

    As others have opined, the style is deliberately (and so far, convincingly) Victorian. Lots of subtle characters who hide their feelings motivations from each other; lots of characters, period (I've almost had to start taking notes when minor characters from Chapter 1 show up 150 pages later); no sex, violence, or profanity (so far, I think, one "D---"); and many footnotes (some which run 80% of the page for 4 pages!).
  • This book is good and is worth the money. You will not need to re-read it in two years when you need the space on your wall. The advertising budget is very large for this book and the reviewer should state his allegiances as I suspect some viral advertising.

    Extract from Economist "Bloomsbury is now launching it with its biggest ever marketing budget for a single book."

  • in progress... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tgibbs (83782) on Friday September 24, 2004 @05:40PM (#10344575)
    I'm not yet halfway, so this is not yet a review.

    I'm definitely hooked. It was quite slow in starting, and very mannered in style, but the sly humor kept me reading. Many of the "scholarly" footnotes are wonderful little fantasy vignettes. For a book about magic, there is a great deal of people talking about magic and very little of them doing it. But the magical scenes, when they occur, are quite satisfyingly magical.

  • by gonerill (139660) on Friday September 24, 2004 @05:46PM (#10344616) Homepage
    I can think of few writers Clarke's work more clearly resembles than Jane Austen. ... Susanna Clarke does have some great books in her. But for the time being, with this, her first novel, we'll have to settle for simply "good."

    So what you're saying is, to merit a grade of, say, "very good" from you I'd have to write better than Jane Austen?
    • I didn't compare Clarke's ability to Jane Austen, I compared her style (I also mentioned that this may be intentional).

      To get a "very good" from me, this novel would need more emotional weight. I'd have to like the characters more. I'd have to believe the characters more.

      To get a "great" from me, on top of that. the novel would have to be structurally more "tight." That is, it lollygags too much in the opening, and it doesn't work up to its climax quite like it should. And many other things...

      Bu

  • This sounds exactly like the kind of book I would like to buy. Sounds a lot like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere [amazon.com] which I thought was awesome.
    • Probably a safe bet, as I said in another post, its a lot like a Victorian Neil Gaiman novel.

      One think the author does extremely well is balancing the fantastic with the ordinary. The way certain aspects of Faerie fade from memory and people are prevented from telling of them by magical compulsions is making it very interesting to me.
    • Re:Good review. (Score:3, Interesting)

      by julesh (229690)
      I find the comparisons with Neil Gaiman interesting, because according to an interview I read with the author a while back, Gaiman was instrumental in getting the book published -- IIRC, the author's writing instructor was a friend of his and sent him a copy, which he forwarded to his editor, who went on to buy it.

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