Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

May 10, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

This is a very popular book if the holds queue at my library was any indication and it is easy to see why. The book is very long and written very densely yet I never wearied of reading it, a testament to both the talent Susanna Clarke brought to bear as well as the time she spent polishing the narrative. I recommend the book to those interested in fantasy and fairy tales, but I can’t do so wholeheartedly because like so many stylists she has been less exacting in her construction of the story itself. The book is really a character piece, meticulously painting the two title characters, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, the supporting material is so interesting that it cries out for a more thorough explanation. Perhaps because her characters do not need to be in crisis for her to write interesting prose about them, Clarke generally dispenses with any sort of crisis and, when there is one at at all, does not bother to add much dimension to it. While one is reading the book this is fine, because there is no way to know if the avalanche of detail is building something while you stand underneath it, but it is something of a disappointment to finish a book like this and upon reflection not find any real substance to the story. I would also add that it seems odd that after finishing such a long and involved story about two magicians, the reader should have only the haziest of ideas as to how one does magic in her world and why someone is or isn’t magician material, but since story and the mechanics of it is such a distant third to style and character, it is not as sharp a criticism (by itself) as it normally would be. Still, you can do a lot worse than this book, since Clarke really is a great writer. I particularly admire her ability to write very short fairy stories…a more challenging task than it sounds initially, but there must be dozens contained with the narrative proper or as footnotes.

Update (6/16/05): After writing this review it has come to my attention that this is apparently just book one of a three book trilogy. This pretty much invalidates most of my complaints about the narrative structure, or lack thereof. It doesn’t mean I completely buy how a certain argument between two important characters just vanishes, nor does it mean the rest of the trilogy will provide the story and depth I was looking for but didn’t find here, but it is a good sign.

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