Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2005)

Subgenre: Fantasy

The Hugo awards have always technically been for both science fiction and fantasy, but the Best Novel award has been dominated by science fiction. In fact, until this decade, I couldn't pick out a single real fantasy novel: here there be no dragons. Apparently, Harry Potter made fantasy too big to be ignored, because since 2000, there have been four fantasy winners, of which Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the latest.

If you like science fiction, the next sentence is going to be a little frightening, so refer to the clumsy visual metaphor I've got above: this is an 800-page book I've read three times. With that out of the way, I can tell you that the three things that immediately jump out at you in this book are fairies, footnotes, and Jane Austen. Strange & Norrell is not really a fairy tale, but an alternate history of early 19th century England. In this alternate world, stories of magic and fairies are recent history rather than legend, and though magic is not practiced, theoretical magicians endlessly debate the finer points of spells they have never performed or even seen. For obvious reasons, this is particularly funny to me. The novel spans the reemergence of "English magic," as heralded by two practical magicians: the fiercely bookish Mr. Norrell and the impassioned dilettante Jonathan Strange.

Populating a novel with scholars makes for scholarly affectations; since most of the characters are motivated by knowledge, we have to understand their world of books, and from the very first page Clarke uses footnotes to do this. The notes gloss details of the world, and tell side stories, preserving some of the illusion of this being a book written about real and recent events. The text itself is written in a pastiche of the 19th-century novel, and most people think of Jane Austen first. Of course, Jane Austen never wrote about fairies living in underground palaces decorated with human bones, despite what a particularly strange adaptation of Northanger Abbey I once saw might suggest. The style shouldn't put you off, though - it's dryly funny and the story moves at a good trot.

The most characteristic part of Strange & Norrell is how thoroughly magic is tied up with English culture, and vice versa. Mr. Norrell disdains fairies as too wild and unrefined, and tries to rewrite history to avoid them as much as possible, imposing his own sense of Englishness on magic. But just the same, this alternate England's culture has grown up around magic and fairies, and this world is not the aristocratic one Strange and Norrell live in:
"Can a magician kill a man by magic?" Lord wellington asked Strange.
Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. "I suppose a magician might," he admitted, "but a gentleman never could." Lord Wellington nodded as if this was just as he would have expected.
The battle over English magic is a battle over English identity, and as a result, Strange & Norrell carries cultural weight beyond its essential story.


  • This book took ten years to write. Ye gods.
  • I think Strange & Norrell has one of the best depictions of the interior of madness I've ever read.

Hugo-worthy? Yep, I love this book. A

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