I finally, finally, finished Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell during the genrethon, so like forever ago, but it also took me for-fucking-ever. But I'm done. And this is my review.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an epic story of two magicians in the
Napoleonic war who try to help the English war effort. Mr Norrell is an old
Yorkshire gentleman who, as far as he knows, is the only practical magician in
England. He despises theoretical magicians and disbands the York magical
society, then moves to London and goes to the Prime Minister basically, and
says, I’m a magician, I can help you beat Napoleon. And Jonathan Strange is a
young man who discovers his magical potential and goes to London to train under
Norrell. Eventually they become enemies rather than friends.
I spent like three months reading this book. It’s 1006 pages. And I feel
like I could have powered through it faster, because I read about 700 pages in
a week. I tended to put it down and then not pick it up for a week before that.
I feel like it was too long and could be put down. It is written sort of like a
historical text and it references a lot of “real” books about magic in England.
And it is saturated with footnotes that sometimes would go on for pages, and
that drove me a bit crazy.
I liked this book because I do tend to like chatty books where not much
happens, and in that sense I did like it. I also liked that neither of the main
characters are particularly likeable. Mr Norrell is absolutely awful. He has no
faith in anyone, he won’t share his knowledge with anyone. He won’t share books
with anyone. And he needs to be pushed and prodded by his friends to give even
Strange help. When he realizes that Strange is a magical genius he fawns over
him and wants no one else to talk to him. He uses some really creepy magic in
the beginning to bring someone back to life, and when the girl’s life goes
downhill afterwards he does nothing to explain what might be wrong, even though
he knows. When Strange tries to share his knowledge with the world, he
petulantly removes that knowledge and buys up all the books, he’s a childish,
cruel, arrogant bastard. And I loved to hate him. He is so spiteful and awful.
Jonathan Strange is also not particularly likeable. I realize that he is
frustrated. Norrell won’t share all his knowledge so Strange gets only part of
what Norrell knows and has now way of obtaining information himself. He is
still incredibly sure of himself and he is arrogant and he tries too much too
soon without knowing his way out, or how to resolve his magic. He has no regard
for the natural laws, changing how the entire Spanish countryside changes and
not putting it back. He refuses to listen to his elders when they do actually
know what’s better, but I have sympathy for him, since Norrell is basically the
I was incredibly impressed with the book. It is really long. It is
massive, it is a bit overwritten perhaps, but it is impressive. It is really
grounded in its own history and reality. Clarke has basically written a massive
history of English history, and magical history, she has written an entire
mythology, and she writes it like it’s true and like it’s something everyone
knows, and it’s so impressive.
It just took me so long, and it might be a problem with me, but it was
so long, and so big, and it felt like a chore at times. At the other hand, when
I did the genrethon I read 700 pages in a week and I was very drawn in. I feel
like the beginning was really slow, and when they really got into Strange going
to Spain that was fun. The story of Stephen Black was also fascinating, but it
seemed a bit like a very peripheral story and I didn’t understand why it was there
at times. It just bugged me that it wasn’t properly explained why it was so
important. It felt like the Man With the Thistle Down Hair was just having fun
and didn’t have any effect on the world, he was basically just playing around,
and it seemed like it wasn’t really important to the rest of the story. They
were just having parties and going around hanging out. I feel like there could
be less of that, or a better justification for it.
I liked big parts of it. I liked Strange’s adventures in Spain. I liked
how despicably Norrell was written. I liked how sprawling it was, and how
grounded it was in its own reality. I think Clarke is an impressive and badass
author. Like, kudos. It was just so long.