Sunday, November 20, 2011

2005 Hugo and WFA – JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL by Susanna Clarke

Every now and then we get interesting little micro-trends popping up on this blog.  I wouldn’t have seen this one coming, but between the Baroque Cycle and this entry, it looks like English history mega-epics are all the rage in science fiction.

I’ve complained about historical fantasy before; it’s a great idea, but many authors give us the trappings (costumes, sets, a few cameos by famous historic personages) without capturing the feel of the period or bothering to contend with the era’s culture.  Clarke does not make that mistake.  This novel takes place in early nineteenth-century England, and it is steeped in the literature and history of the period.  The facts are accurate, even with the fantasy overlay, and the prose is light, modern, and fun while still paying tribute to the works of Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and other contemporary authors.  The Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, and Mad King George III all pop by, but they don’t overshadow the book or spout their greatest hits; they’re entertaining guest stars on the same level as much of the rest of the novel’s vast cast.

England was once a nation full of magic.  For three centuries, the Raven King ruled the north with the help of arcane alliances, fairies, and his own vast powers.  This golden age passed into a silver age by the fifteenth century, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, magicians are overstuffed academics who argue about magical history while avoiding anything as ungentlemanly as spells themselves.  In Yorkshire, one of these scholars deigns to ask the question “why is no real magic practiced in England anymore?”  He soon discovers that there is one practicing magician nearby, a grumpy recluse named Mr. Norrell.  Norrell demonstrates his power in Yorkshire, than rises to fame in London with a successful resurrection and some weather manipulation to help the cause of the English Navy in the Napoleonic Wars.  Mr. Norrell is paranoid that other practicing magicians might rise and steal his thunder, but one young gentleman, Jonathan Strange, is so powerful that Norrell must take him on as a student.  The novel follows their rocky relationship as they argue over the dangers of dealing with fairies and reviving England’s rich magical background.

The novel covers a decade of this relationship, takes us to the battlefields of Spain and Waterloo (and briefly to a famous holiday on Lake Geneva, where many would argue science fiction was born), and to Venice.  It begins as a small comedy of manners, follows a few sub-plots that appear to be tangents, then pulls everything together for an awesome, epic conclusion in the third part.  I also found Clarke’s portrayal of magic (which is the fantasy equivalent of sf’s exploration of technology) particularly exciting; it’s rich in history (one of the main attractions here is the novel’s wonderful and consistent footnotes), and the mechanisms are slowly unveiled as the plot begins to coalesce. All the while, Clarke’s prose sparkles, her characters are multi-dimensional, entertaining, and compelling, and she hints at deeper issues of class, gender, race, and the philosophy of knowledge.  I’ve complained about the growing page-counts of novels a couple of times this decade; well, this is the longest book yet, and I wouldn’t give up a word of it.  It is a fantastic work that I’d recommend to pretty much anyone.

Grade: A

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