Reviewing Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

There are two reasons I picked up Mr Norrell & Jonathan Strange. The first is that I am loving the BBC adaptation of the book and wanted to read it before the series finished (goal achieved). The second is that the book has been touted as the adult Harry Potter. This of course could mean it’s beyond shit since Harry Potter is the stuff my dreams are still made of, or that it is very, very good. After having seen some of the TV show I started to think it was the latter so I picked up a copy and started to read.

Set in the early 19th century the story is about the relationship the two protagonists have with each other, and more importantly the attitudes they have towards practical magic and theoretical magic. In addition to their egos and battles of wills you have the bloody battle ground of Waterloo, endless balls in the Faerie land of Lost-Hope, and lots of tea. I can see why this book has been compared to Harry Potter – the skill with which Susanna Clarke has infused the magical world with reality is extraordinary and this made it such a pleasure to read.

Gilbert Norrell is determined to have a respectable form of magic brought back to England and he begins by doing two extraordinary feats of magic, the first being all the stone statues in York Cathedral to life and the second to bring a bride-to-be (of a politician who can make or break his magical reputation) back to life. On the other hand Jonathan Strange is more naturally gifted and more curious about magic. He wants to know more about the Raven King, the medieval Magician King who played a huge role in shaping the sort of magic Norrell detests. Strange wants to know more about Faery magic and Norrell hates this – Faery magic isn’t respectable, and this causes the main tension within the book. I sided with Strange more often than not but there were times when I found myself agreeing with Norrell – this is definitely down to Susanna Clarke’s writing.

The two of them represent civilised magic and wilder magic respectively and the tension between that really makes this novel. There are ships made of rain, pathways through mirrors between this world and Faerie, as well as the stories of the very people most affected by both types of magic. You remember the bride-to-be I mentioned earlier? The consequences of being brought to life are horrific for her.

I found this book gripping and I loved it. At 800 pages I am so glad that was the case because if I didn’t like it I would have stuck with the TV show.

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