Saturday, December 10, 2016

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr. Norell is a book that I've had for probably a decade.  I'd started it before but didn't manage to get very far in, which made it a good candidate for a reading challenge category revolving around a book that I'd previously started but hadn't finished.  It's a long book, at almost 800 pages, but I decided to give it a go again.

The plot revolves around the two titular characters, who claim to be the only two magicians in England.  Strange is Norrell's pupil, but the two have very different views on magic.  Norrell wants to stay away from faeries and faerie magic, claiming that it has no place in a modern England--despite the fact that he used faerie magic to bring a young woman back from the dead, though no one knows that's how he did it.  Strange, on the other hand, wants to embrace faeries, faerie magic, and Jonathan Uskglass, the Raven King, who supposedly once ruled over both part of Faerie and northern England.  After Strange goes to Spain to aid in the fight against Napoleon, their differences begin to become even more pronounced and the two split, leading into a "rival magicians" story, until they must ultimately overcome their differences to deal with the consequences of Norrell's early magic, which have reverberated further than anyone would have thought.

Here's the thing about this book.  It.  Is.  Slooooow.  So, so, incredibly slow.  It gets off to a slow start, and the pace never really quickens.  It continues at a sedate rate for the entirety of the narrative.  This is much due to the style of writing.  It comes across as very proper and English and suitable to the time period in which the book takes place, but it greatly detracts from actual engagement with the story, instead keeping the reader at a distance.  Another problem I found is that, despite it being a story about magicians, very few acts of magic are actually depicted on the page.  The characters talk about them being performed, but most often we don't actually see them.  This starts to change later in the book, a bit, once Strange becomes more of a central character, but by that point I think it's past the point of no return on the "boring" scale.  Because that's what this ultimately is: boring.

It's sad, because there is such promise here with the plot.  Ultimately, it's a very good plot.  I think if a few hundred pages (yes, a few hundred) had been trimmed out of here, the writing could have been greatly streamlined, made more engaging, and the premise and setting used to their full advantage to make this an excellent read.  There's enough mystery floating around in the background to make many of the things discussed, particularly the Raven King, intriguing, and the supporting characters ultimately become very entwined in the plot as well, though they didn't seem to be on that path at the beginning.  As it is, though, this is not something I could see myself slogging through again.  It just takes too much effort for too little payoff.

This book was turned into a TV series (of one season) by BBC, and is available on Netflix in the US currently.  I've started watching it, and at halfway through the first episode we're already making much better progress than we were in the book.  I think this is one that, ultimately, will do far better on the screen than the page.

I'm going to give it 3 stars out of 5, but it's honestly more for the potential of the story, and how it came together in the end, than for overall enjoyment.

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