Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004)

I don't normally go in for this kind of thing—fantasy and magic in a historical British setting—but somehow I ended up with a copy of it and somehow one day I opened it up and started reading. It's big, positively epic, and so suitable for the long wintertime evenings. Maybe that was it. At any rate, it's certainly worthwhile. I would say don't believe the hype about the second coming of Jane Austen. Susanna Clarke sets a nice equable tone, but she doesn't bring off that much of a sense of post-Enlightenment 18th century simply by replicating some of the eccentric spellings ("chuse," "shew," "sopha," "scissars," etc., etc.). But that's quibbling in the face of her larger achievement—a sweeping, breathtaking alternative history of Britain that incorporates an entirely unexpected element of magic. And that's "real" magic as opposed to stage magic, both of which are discussed and debated among the scholars who stalk this heavily "documented" (that is, liberally footnoted) narrative, which recounts the emergence of two "real" magicians during the period of the Napoleonic wars, after Britain has endured centuries without any such. In Clarke's universe, a golden era of magic in Britain took place circa the 13th and 14th centuries. (Merlin, it turns out, from a century or two before that, was just a relatively minor magician in the larger scheme—one simple example of Clarke's ability to be thoroughly comprehensive in her invention.) The big kahuna in her story is a mysterious figure known simply as the Raven King, and it’s testament to the authority Clarke brings to bear (or perhaps just to my gullibility) that I had to turn to Wikipedia frequently to sort out what was historical fact from what was Clarke's imagination. As a figure in the novel, the Raven King grows from an incidental passing reference to an imposing presence almost imperceptibly, as the scope of the story gradually establishes itself, until he becomes as terrifying and overwhelming to the reader as to anyone living inside this novel. There are fairies here too, which though by and large as spritely and charming as even their most conventional reputations have it, nonetheless don't mean particularly well by us. In fact, they are downright creepy across the breadth of this extremely impressive tale. And that brings me to what I think I like best about Clarke's novel. Unlike the Harry Potter books, which may or may not have set the stage for something like this, this is not a story for children, and in the end it's not particularly light-hearted, let alone frivolous. It's fantasy and magic, but it's happening to adults; the situations are serious, and the stakes grow to be enormous. In the end it's absolutely gripping.

In case it's not at the library.

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