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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
Raincoast Books/Bloomsbury UK
782 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Posted September 10, 2004

Don't believe the hype. In this case, U.K. publisher Bloomsbury would have us believe that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is "Harry Potter for adults." (Coincidentally, Bloomsbury also publishes J.K.Rowlings.) More hyperbole? British fantasy author Neil Gaiman calls it "unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last 70 years." Not only is Gaiman's claim strange given the specificity of his chosen time range (why 70 years as opposed to 50 or 100, or even 75?), but it is also completely outrageous - this book isn't better than The Lord of the Rings, which at last count, is outselling the Bible.

In fact, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is not much better than some of Neil Gaiman's own books (who himself is only a notch above Stephen King). Don't believe the hype, folks. For all the advance praise Bloomsbury is spinning, this book is only pretty good.

It is a very thick book, a doorstop really - 782 pages where a tidy 450 would have been plenty. Actually, if Clarke had kept her word count down, or more to the point, if her editor had sent back the manuscript with a note saying, "Knock 300 pages off and we'll talk," then this review might have been a rave. The last 250 pages are riveting, gloriously fun, and superbly written. Unfortunately, much of the first half of the book could be prescribed to chronic insomniacs.

Here's the story. In the early 19th century, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell are the last two living English magicians. Clarke's version of England is only slightly askew from real life. Most historical occurrences and people are recognizable, but with the twist that magic was once common, but has all but died out. No one is sure why, but it seems to have something to do with the disappearance of John Uskglass, a human magician raised by fairies. Also called the Raven King, he ruled Northern England for more than 200 years in the Middle Ages, and was by far the greatest English magician ever.

Norrell is committed to returning magic to England, but only in the proper British manner - in other words, his way. As such, he spends most of the early part of the novel seeking out and discrediting false magicians. Strange, on the other hand, turns to magic more as something to occupy his time. When both end up in London, Norrell takes Strange on as an apprentice. The pupil quickly outshines the teacher, mainly because Norrell refuses to take his nose out of his books long enough to cast a spell, while Strange is all for trial and error, regardless of the consequences. Naturally, these two men are destined to come into conflict.

Strange joins Lord Wellington in his campaigns against Napoleon's forces, first in Spain, and later in Belgium. It would seem much of Wellington's success was due to Strange, who conjures up temporary roads and bridges so the English army can keep up with the French soldiers, brings a squad of mercenaries back to life to be questioned, moves rivers, and even transports the entire city of Brussels to North America for a day in order to protect its residents until English reinforcements can make it there. Powerful magic indeed.

Meanwhile, back in England, a fairy spirit Norrell summons to bring a woman back from the dead sticks around and wreaks havoc, mainly by stealing people away to dance in his magical ballroom every night, leaving them exhausted during the day.

The various plotlines come together tidily in the end, which is an exciting finish. Clarke just takes too long to get to the good stuff. For instance, though we are introduced to Norrell right away, Jonathan Strange does not enter the story until page 127 in spite of the fact that he is the book's most compelling character, and really, its protagonist.

When Strange does show up, the story picks up a bit, but the engine that really drives this novel, the tension between the two magicians, takes almost 400 more pages to develop. And for all that time, the reader is left wondering what this meandering is all about.

Clarke is inconsistent in her treatment of her minor characters, too, sometimes giving them a large role to play and then abandoning them, even when the story would seem to call for their presence. The first three chapters are written from the point of view of a would-be magician named John Segundus. Just when you start to believe he is actually the protagonist, he disappears for several hundred pages.

Other problems? For a book about magic, there is not a lot of it, at least not until the end stretch. Early on, although Strange and Norrell discuss magic at great (and somewhat tedious) length, when one or the other actually performs magic, it often occurs in the periphery or even the background of the scene. The reader is cheated from learning how they cast the spell, for instance, or even just seeing what the spell might look like. This is very frustrating, especially after wading through so many pages where nothing much happens.

Clarke also adopts a scholarly tone, including a bewildering array of footnotes that are occasionally witty, but usually just longwinded and distracting. The dense, sometimes archaic language adds to the tedium of the first half of the book. Not surprisingly, that weighty tone fades away in action scenes, and all but disappears in the last 200 pages.

If a hard-nosed editor had forced Susanna Clarke to cut a third of this novel it could have been a great book, a compelling tale of magic set within the heyday of the British Empire. Instead, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a disappointment, a too-thick tome weighed down by a vastly overwritten first half. The view at the end, as spectacular as it is, just isn't worth the slog through the swamp to get there.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer with nothing up his sleeve.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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