Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

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.

The book
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 worst.

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.