18. TMTF Reviews: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was first mentioned to me by a cousin who happens to be a Literary Person. He described it as a fantasy novel that was very funny and reminiscent of Dickens. As I listened, I was rapidly working out an equation in my head: Fantasy Novel + Humorous Style + Charles Dickens = Awesome.

I eventually found the novel in a local library. It’s understatement to say Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a large book; it weighs only slightly more than an adult hippopotamus. I began reading, wondering whether such an enormous novel would be worth my time.

It was. Every word of it.

In this day of formulaic fantasies—books with lurid covers and predictable plots and lots of bizarre sex scenes—it was truly delightful to sit down with something truly original and well-written as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It’s not quite like anything I’ve ever read, yet oddly reminiscent of familiar authors like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.

The basic premise of the book is that magic was once an accepted part of British history: magicians once lived and worked magic, and none was greater than the mysterious Raven King. The year, however, is 1806 and magic is ancient history—very boring history. Only a few theoretical magicians still discuss and debate the fine points of magical tradition. Then a practical magician, a retiring gentleman called Mr Norrell, is found. He begins a campaign to revive English magic, eventually partnering with a man named Jonathan Strange who shows remarkable aptitude for magic. The novel recounts the return of magic to England, an event involving cold-hearted fairies, dignified gentlemen, rough beggars and, of course, the Raven King.

The sheer ingenuity of the setting is wonderful. The novel beautifully weaves the factual culture and history of nineteenth-century Britain with the fictional history and practice of British magic. The tone of the novel shifts between humor and melancholy: some passages shine with the cheerful drollery of Dickens’s brightest novels; others convey the same haunting sense of desolation as the Brontë sisters’ more discouraging books.

If pressed to place Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in a specific genre, I wouldn’t be quite sure where to put it. It’s a comedy of manners—a Gothic novel—an alternative history—to be honest, it defies attempts at categorization. Whatever it is, it’s probably one of the best fantasies of the century so far.

Reading the novel requires a significant investment of time, and some readers may find the humor humorless and the melancholy too melancholy, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to anyone who likes fantasy fiction or classic British literature, and especially to anyone who likes both. It’s a solid, satisfying and highly imaginative piece of fiction that’s probably destined to become a classic of its genre—whatever the deuce its genre might be.

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