Thursday, 27 October 2005

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2004
Review number: 1307

The is obviously something of a golden age in British science fiction and fantasy at the moment. For the first time ever, this year's Hugo novels short list was dominated by British entries (though this may be because the 2005 WorldCon, whose delegates vote in the award, was held on this side of the Atlantic). Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was the winner of the Hugo, and is in my opinion more than just the best fantasy novel of the year; it ranks amongst the classics of the genre while comprehensively rejecting the heroic style that has dominated it since Tolkien. Last year, the literary fantasy novel which most impressed me, Iain R. MacLeod's The Light Ages, was clearly heavily influenced by Dickens. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell also harks back to a nineteenth century style, but this time it is George Eliot who is the model. Like MacLeod, Clarke writes well enough for the comparison to be justifiable rather than pure hyperbole.

Again like The Light Ages, this novel is a portrait of an England full of magic; rather than the industrial raw material of MacLeod's story, Clarke imagines it as an art practised by the gifted in learned societies (rather like the scientific groups which were around in the seventeenth and eighteenth century). In the early years of the nineteenth century, during the Napoleonic Wars, the practise of magic has died out, and those who call themselves magicians are either charlatans and conjurors or scholars producing learned treatises on the accomplishments of English magicians of the past. The Middle Ages had been the age of the aureate or golden magicians including the Raven King who once ruled half the land. The novel is the story of the two men who are destined to be instrumental in bringing magic back to England, and they are both more scholars than heroes (though Jonathan Strange accompanies Wellington on his campaigns in Spain).

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a long novel full of detail (which is often amusing). Everything is done to make it read as though it were a real world nineteenth century novel, including the sort of footnotes often found in modern editions, here explaining the references to magical history. In effect, it's meant to seem as though a product of this universe of magic has fallen through somehow to be published in this mundane world. Everything in it is normal - according to its own rules - and the characters in it are normal people, and not valiant paladins or sorcerers steeped in unspeakable evil. (Mr Norrell is distinctly reminiscent of Eliot's Casaubon from Middlemarch, if rather more successful in his scholarly endeavours.)

While very different from most fantasy novels today, I found myself reminded of some of my favourites from the genre: John Crowley's Little, Big and Neil Gaiman's Stardust. It is milder than the latter and more overtly intellectual than either, but really has a similar atmosphere to it as both these stories. Clarke's debut - which is incredibly accomplished - is at least on a level with these two. It should become a gentle classic of a genre not generally known for its subtlety; a truly great novel.

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