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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

by Susanna Clarke

(Bloomsbury, 777 pages, hardback, September 2004, priced £17.99. Paperback, 1006 pages, 2005, £7.99.)

Review by Simeon Shoul

cover scanIn 1806 English Magic has slipped into a sad state. No longer the bright, fantastical tool of older days, it has become little more than a subject for scholarly research. The many gentlemen of England who are pleased to call themselves 'magicians' are really little more than antiquarians, pouring over the biographies and treatises of such medieval wonder-workers as Martin Pale, Paris Ormskirk, and the legendary John Uskglass, once a King of Northern England, and of part of Faerie, but long since lost in legend.

All except one. Mr Gilbert Norrell, of Yorkshire, an elderly gentleman, bookish, rather stuffy, who proves to his neighbours that he is, in fact, a quite accomplished 'practical' magician, by rousing all the statuary of York Cathedral to garrulous, insistent life. Not content with this he travels to London, presents himself to the Government and offers himself as their assistant in the great war against Napoleonic France.

The Government is inclined to fob him off, until he raises a woman from the dead. At this they grow enthusiastic. A new Age of English Magic dawns. Norrell works further wonders, and all seems set fair... until that is another 'practical' magician appears, Jonathan Strange, a young gentleman of Shropshire.

Strange is everything that Norrell is not. Dashing, even impetuous. Eager to make his mark in the revival of English Magic and often heedless of the risks. At first Norrell's pupil, he slowly diverges from his mentor, disputing theories, arguing over methods, and especially refuting Norrell's belief that Faerie magic is a trap and a snare, a delusion that English Magic must foreswear, along with its progenitor, the infamous John Uskglass...

Inevitably the two men come to a breaking point and forces beyond their control begin to sweep them towards a terrible confrontation.

It has been said that 'Genius is nine-tenths an infinite capacity for taking pains,' and by God you can see the pains that Clarke has taken in composing this extraordinary book. The evocation of early Nineteenth Century England, is seamless, quite perfect. Strikingly Dickensian in some elements of style and language, beautifully 'in period' in its vocabulary, characters and attitudes, Clarke never falters in her sure control of the world she has created.

At the same time she has built on top of this solid-as-rock 'reality' a magnificent layer of fantasy invention. Over seven hundred years of English History lie behind the contemporary story, replete with medieval and rennaissance magicians, Faerie Knights, feats of magic, wonderful scraps of folklore and meticulously footnoted references to book after book. It is every bit as complete and perfect as the 'modern' elements of the story.

Then there is the story itself. Its characters, who are vivid, complex, utterly credible people. Its events, which are lush, startling, exciting. Its plot, which is deft, and intricate, logical yet surprising, and also sinister. Yes indeed, this book does not lack for atmosphere and in places it is quite desperately sinister. Clarke has the boldness to embrace tragedy. There are forces at work in her world that are amoral, capricious and destructive, and which take no note of the innocents caught in their path.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a genuine rarity in the Fantasy genre. It is boldly original, brilliantly told, marvellously written. It has the depth of a Masterpiece, and the power to become an instant Classic. Not to be missed.

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