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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell


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Centuries ago when magic still existed in England, the greatest magician of them all was the Raven King. A human child brought up by fairies, the Raven King blended fairy wisdom and human reason to create English magic. Now, in the early 1800s, he is barely more than a legend, and most of England, with its mad King and its dashing poets, no longer believes.

 

In the city of York, however, a society of magicians meets upon the third Wednesday of every month to read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic. It is of their opinion that there are no practising magicians left in the country of England. Little do they know that they are soon to encounter the reclusive Mr Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey who will cause the stone statues of the Cathedral of York to speak and dance — and a beautiful young woman to be raised from the dead, with the help of the gentleman with thistle-down hair.

 

Mr Norrell goes to London, persuaded that he must make his gifts available to the government. News spreads of the return of magic to England, and Norrell swiftly becomes a man of influence and distinction. He meets a brilliant young magician and takes him as a pupil. Jonathan Strange is charming, rich and arrogant. His extraordinary talent will take him to the Napleonic Wars where he will conjure angels with flaming lances and move woods, rivers and even cities to confuse and confound the French. But, unknown to Jonathan Strange, the restoration of English magic is founded upon a lie, and he and his wife Arabella will one day have to pay the price for that lie. To save Arabella, Strange will have to endure madness, until he finally learns the true nature of English magic — and its creator.

 

 

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I've just finished reading this and enjoyed it. It isn't simply Harry Potter for adults, it's far darker and I particularly enjoyed the interplay between the fiction and historical events.

 

The fairy described as "the Gentleman" is an unnerving character, utterly selfish and unconcerned about the affects of his actions.

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  • 5 weeks later...

I just finished reading this too, and I agree that it isn't simply Harry Potter for adults. I thought that in places it needed a bit of editing, and some of the events seemed a little dragged out. Aside from that, I found it a really good read, and I think that the way the "gentlemen with thistle down hair" wasn't given a name was one of the reasons he stayed quite a creepy character. I'd definitely recommend it to someone else

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  • 2 weeks later...

I too have recently read this and enjoyed it. I agree with bluesgreens I think it could have done with some editing but I don't think by 300 pages which is what one of the Booker judges said. I read or didn't read the footnotes when I thought it would interrupt the flow of the narrative. I loved the characters but felt that with the size of the book they could have been given slightly more depth. The 19th century world in which they inhabit is created so well that its hard to believe that the novel wasn't written in the time in which it was set. I savoured the whole book and was disappointed when it was finished. It was a heavy one to read in bed though and requires a complex pillow arrangement or a strong grip!

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It was a heavy one to read in bed though and requires a complex pillow arrangement or a strong grip!

I second that one!

I really enjoyed this book and made an effort to read all the footnotes. The comparisons with Harry Potter that are floating around everywhere are just silly but I suppose that any magic book post-Harry is immediately going to be compared. I too am glad that the "gentlemen with thistle down hair" never had his true name revealed, what a nasty character. I particularly liked how Strange wanted to be remembered "with my nose in a book"

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I've just finished this. What a wonderful book! Forget disneyfied fairyland, Clarke's world of faerie and its inhabitants are cruel, dark and alien, just like they used to be. A remarkable vision, that needs its 700 odd pages to tell the story.

 

A friend of mine said I would love it and I did.

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  • 5 weeks later...

Hi, I have just subscribed to this group so I thought I'd post a small comment. I am reading through the last 100 odd pages of this book and am liking it very much. I was in Venice last year and the part set there made me very nostalgic....(I recognised some of the places). The story I find quite gripping and I like the footnotes too, they give the tale a feel of authenticity... I would not however compare this to Harry Potter, both as far as contents and style are concerned...

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  • 8 months later...

There were several points on my reading of this novel where I was very close to giving up on it. My copy is the 1005 page long paperback and where previous posters have said that the suggested 300 page edit of the 700 page hardback version was harsh, I think there were about that many pages too many in the paperback. My low point was at the start of the third and last section with all the waffle when J. Strange arrives in Italy.

 

That said, I really enjoyed the last 100 pages and was very glad that I persevered. The ends are tied up nicely but not too neatly and the climax is very pacey. The whole novel is very athmospheric where it keeps on track and the story itself is excellent. Each of the main characters is very well drawn and you do get a good feeling of the tensions and politics at play.

 

I'd like there to be a 600 page version that I could recommend to friends. I am lucky enough to have quite a bit of time to devote to reading at the moment, but I still found that I had lost some of the key plot moves in the mire of the spurious meanderings of the plot. Very frustrating. But I will be looking out for Ms Clarke's next book.

 

(Just had a thought: in the same way that DVDs come out with a Director's Cut with 30 minutes or so of extra footage, perhaps this book could have an Editor's Cut with 30% fewer pages!)

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  • 1 year later...

------------------------------------------------------3rd January 2006, 04:12 AM

 

Magwitch

Founder Member

 

I was hoping to read something more encouraging, because a part of me wants to continue reading.

I was given this book as a Christmas gift and have been trying desperately to enjoy it. But it is TOO LONG. It's like someone is sooooo pleased that they learned to write in a contemporary style, they just have to beat you over the head with it page after page after page. Learn from the masters. Repetition is NOT A GOOD THING. Once you have established a character / scene/ situation, you do not need to keep on and on and on re-enforcing it. No matter how wonderfully you think you emulate Thackeray.

 

The following sentence sums up this book so far, for me (describing Jonathan Strange):

It is also true that his hair had a reddish tinge and, as everybody knows, no one with red hair can ever truly be said to be handsome.

 

Now, I'd only just forgiven Clarke for the cringingly awful reference to contemporary TV programmes on home improvement when Norrell moves to London and is taken up (quite inconceivably and unconvincingly) by the camp Drawlight. If I had subsequently been enticed into the narrative through it's wit and humour, I might have viewed the above sentence in a completely different light. However, for this snide reference (because that is all it is) to the popular mockery of red-haired people, I declare my undying hatred of Ms Susannah Clarke.

 

-----------------------------------------------------13th January 2006, 04:10 PM

 

Tess

Subscriber and Founder Member

 

Now, I'd only just forgiven Clarke for the cringingly awful reference to contemporary TV programmes on home improvement when Norrell moves to London and is taken up (quite inconceivably and unconvincingly) by the camp Drawlight.

 

What was the reference?

 

-----------------------------------------------------8th March 2006, 11:07 AM

 

Red Fox

Member

 

I have just finished this book and I really liked it. I thought that the style of writing was very good, it didn't seem dull or repetitive to me at all.

 

I loved the atmospheres she created in the book, the descriptions of the people and places were almost visual - perhaps helped by the lovely sketches.

 

For me it was the supporting characters that really made it, especially the Duke of Wellington, Stephen Black and Vinculus - but the gentleman with the thistledown hair is definitely the star of the show!

 

-----------------------------------------------------30th March 2006, 04:16 PM

 

David

Subscriber and Permanent Resident

 

I made a brief start on this last year but found I just wasn't in the mood after a short while and left it off. This was my fault rather than the book's. Having now returned and completed it I can say it was a real pleasure.

 

It is a little overlong (though I didn't find it repetitive at all, just too many unnecessary sections which were occasionally drawn out), but in part at least I think this is down to its emulation of nineteenth century narratives, in which it was very successful (right down to the illustrations!). As part of this and the attempt to give it the feel of genuine scholarship in relation to magic I liked the footnotes, and the stories contained within the longer ones were definitely worth reading. I also loved the gentle and ironic humour woven into the narrative, which was never intrusive but occasionally gave an added twinkle to the text. This is unquestionably how the red hair comment was meant, though I could understand how red-headed people might feel a bit sensitive about this.

 

I thought it was highly successful in evoking not simply the Napoleonic era, but also the feel of a credible alternative history of which magic is an integral part. I also liked the way this magic was evoked, with the sense of harmonious interaction with nature as well as the borrowings from the world of Faerie. I wonder if Clarke deliberately set it at this time because of the influences of Romanticism, which also looked to the ideas of powerful forces running through nature with which we must harmonise if we want to find the greatest truths? Byron takes his place in the plot, after all.

 

There could have been greater depth to the characterisation, but this did come about eventually when everything comes together at the end, both Strange and Norrell becoming a lot more fully realised. As excellent as it was, perhaps too much was left until the end, with many characters suddenly returning to demonstrate their full significance and a great welter of events. In relation to the earlier comment, I thought it was wholly credible that Norrell should fall in with Drawlight - he is a vain little man lost in a city of which he knows nothing, with a need to become ingratiated with the high society necessary to promulgate his magic. Consequently he would be easily drawn into the artful manipulation in which Drawlight engages.

 

I particularly enjoyed the portrayals of Lost-Hope and its sliding into the world of men, which I thought was portrayed with vivid imagination.

 

I certainly hadn't expected the events of the ending, but it felt highly appropriate.

 

A long but rewarding read. And no, nothing like Harry Potter.

 

-----------------------------------------------------2nd April 2006, 05:17 PM

 

Kate Redux

New Member

 

possible spoilers

 

I loved this book. Cool, clever and very funny. A work bursting with real and make believe erudition and a sweetly regretful romance. It's almost five months since I read it and can still feel the sense of winter and the icy breath of the man with the thistledown hair, who followed his own fancies to the detriment of others.

 

There was a particularly poignant image of 'Lost Hope' in the description of one of the dancing ladies: 'She wore a gown the colour of storms, shadows and rain and a necklace of broken promises and regrets.' And there was something sweetly sad about Jonathan paying the price of exile in order to get Arabella out of there. Although I loved the practical way they dealt with this. Stiff upper lip and all that!

 

I liked the audacity of the historical background: the Battle of Waterloo, the Grand Tour and the way the man with the thistledown hair was responsible for the madness George the III! And the way everyone accepted magic without batting an eye lid – even the Church!

 

Reading another book, Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, recently, I discovered Childermass was church service in honour (or mourning) of the innocent infant boys put to the sword by Herod's men in the hope one of them might be Jesus.

 

Apart from those who were clearly pieces of work, the characters were very beguiling; I even felt pity for Mr Norrell in the end

 

Highly recommended.

 

---------------------------------------------------------2nd April 2006, 05:33 PM

 

Kate Redux

New Member

 

Aplogies for double post but I just spotted that Magwitch was cross about the following description of Jonathan Strange:

 

"It is also true that his hair had a reddish tinge and, as everybody knows, no one with red hair can ever truly be said to be handsome."

 

I think Clarke is being tongue-in-cheek here, as it's quite clear that she is very fond of her creation - a little self indulgent of her perhaps but excusable (Jane Austen is fond of Eliza Bennett and Dorothy L Sayers of Peter Whimsy, for example). And don't you think it's often the case that almost handsome characters are far more interesting and attractive than truly handsome ones?

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--------------------------------------------------------26th April 2006, 09:32 PM

 

katrina

Permanent Resident

 

I read this book when it first come out (have a gorgeous hardback edition with blk cover and blk edged pages -looks lovely ) I really enjoyed it tho it was to heavy to read, should have come in 3 books to stop the achy arms and difficulty of reading in bed.

 

I was studying Nepolean at uni at the time and found this version a lot better, I particually loved the way they moved the river so they were on the right side - if only that could happen!

 

I didn't find the book overly long (i didn't read all of the foot-notes) and I loved the characters, esp the man with the thistle down hair. Can't wait for her next book

 

--------------------------------------------------------26th April 2006, 09:36 PM

 

katrina

Permanent Resident

 

I went and found out when her next book is out: 16th Oct 2006 its called The Ladies of Grace Adieu, the website had an extract from the book but not a description of what the book was about.

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I read this book a good two years ago and still think back on it fondly. The style of language was different, and oddly comforting, it put me at ease to read it. I remember finishing it and wanting to read more, considering it's length this suprised me. I'm still holding out hope that Clarke will come back to these characters in the future.

 

At the time I read it I desperately needed something to distract me from reality, and this book really did. It helped me through a tough time.

 

I heard from somewhere that Strange crops up in her collection of short stories - The Ladies of Grace and Adieu - which I haven't read yet.

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  • 2 months later...

I finished this last week. Took a while as it was too big and heavy to take on the train (I had the 1,006 page paperback, but they used heavy paper!). Thoroughly enjoyed it. Was it too long? Not really, I thought the story was told at a good pace in a 19th century style of narrative, and I really don't see where 300 pages could have been cut. That said, I found the footnotes slightly irritating, but I guess they were in keeping with the style of the time the book was set in. I read them, but they didn't add to the story.

 

One thing I will mention (and I'm sure there's a thread about this sort of thing somewhere on BGO) is the way that Jonathan Strange appeared in my mind throughout the book. I imagined him being played by Alan Davies in the style of Jonathan Creek, and he fitted the role perfectly.

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Really glad you enjoyed it, MFJ. It's a fantastic story and, like you, I didn't find it at all too long.

 

There's something poignantly epic about this book that adds to its' charm immeasurably. It's so imaginative and detailed as well.

 

Reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu at the moment and finding it just as good so far.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I'm a big fan of Charles Dickens and Victorian London so the mere setting of this book in that timeline and location made sure that the book piqued my interest. The story itself is fantastic and amazing in scope and imagination. I was very impressed with the authors writing style and close attention to detail and I fully believe that this book will read as well in 100 years time as it does today.

 

I loved it. From start to finish I felt it was a weird combination of Dickens, Tolkien and Rowling that blended very well together.

 

As I've said elsewhere, I just hope that Clarke can deliver something equally good again. :)

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I too loved it, and was continuosly impressed at both the style and content of the book. She has also released a collection of short stories, "The Ladies of Grace Adieu", which I didn't enjoy to the same extent. Both of the copies I have are gorgeous-illustrated hardbacks, and a real treat to read. I don't often buy hardbacks!

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I too loved it, and was continuosly impressed at both the style and content of the book. She has also released a collection of short stories, "The Ladies of Grace Adieu", which I didn't enjoy to the same extent. Both of the copies I have are gorgeous-illustrated hardbacks, and a real treat to read. I don't often buy hardbacks!

I have both of these in H/B as well and I agree they are rather special. :)

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I have gorgeous editions of both of these books, I haven't got around to the second one as I'm not a huge short story fan yet seem to have read several short story collections this year, maybe this will get dug out during the summer hols, I paid a fair price for it.

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  • 2 weeks later...

While you were having the latest round of discussion, I was sat on a sunlounger reading this.

 

I have the 3 volume edition, which certainly makes it much easier to carry around! Unfortunately, the black volume 2 overheated in the sun, and the glue melted meaning that chunks of pages have detached themselves. :mad:

 

Having had a big Children's lit fest before my holiday, and then reading a couple of chick-lits to help me wind down, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell proved to be the perfect book for me to get my teeth into without being irritated or confused.

 

I loved all the footnote comments - for me, they really brought the book to life - as if there really was Mr Norrell's biography written by Jonathan Strange. I'd also love to get my hands on Mr Norrell's library - I'm sure there have not been any magical books in the library's I've worked in!!

 

I think it could have done with some mild editing - although I agree with Jen that 300 pages would have been too many.

 

Overall - a very clever, and what felt like a very well researched, book. Certainly more than "Harry Potter for adults", although I can see the reasoning behind that promotional tag line!

 

I think very Susannah Clarke worthy of her place on Waterstone's writers of the future list.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I absolutely loved this book. I bought the hardback when it first came out in the USA and was simply captivated by the writing. A lot of references to the North of England which is close to my heart. I re-read the book again recently and thoroughly enjoyed it, footnotes and all. I managed to persuade my twin sister to read it and she loved it too.

 

One of my favorite books!

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Guest Colyngbourne

At close to 800 pages in my copy, JS&MN looks like a vertiginous mountain as you begin it. Each foot(hill)-note deceptively takes you off the steep path and befuddles you in a sidetracking of the kind that Susanna Clarke warns leads to stumbling upon the brugh that are ‘the hollow hills’ of faerie dwelling.

 

It *is* a long haul but (to drag out the metaphor) the view from the top is worth it. The wordy footnotes (sometimes taking up most of the page) are a cross between an irritating distraction and a pleasant filling in of gaps, which the author does not spare space for in the main narrative: the setting-down of faerie legends and the building up of details about the mythical Raven King of Northern England are hugely enjoyable but they become repetitive and unnecessary the further the reader steps into the alternative history of England that is given. It is a failing that in the latter chapters the author mostly uses the footnotes to jog the reader’s memory of characters that she has let fall by the wayside. On the whole, the footnote gimmick works, though it does rob the book of some tension. Early on, a book entitled, ‘The Life of Jonathan Strange’ is quoted from, suggesting that by the end of the book, he is either dead or as good as.

 

For the rest, it’s a well-wrought tale, fusing a comedy of manners with a Gothic fantasy that ends suitably darkly. It has light elements of Austen and Dickens and P. O'Brien, mixed in with original gothic and Peake and Harry Potter. Its major problems are that the interesting plot is stretched too thinly over a huge framework, that the characters lack characterisation, depth and sometimes motivation. The longed-for appearance of the Raven King, John Uskglass, is an anti-climax, and although the author has named every last walk-on and their pet dog, she deliberately omits the name of the evil faerie who conjures up most of the machinations of the plot, the man ‘with thistledown hair’. The language is quite repetitive, and sometimes quite arbitrary as to the 'olde' spellings so that you stumble over 'chuse' and 'sopha' when they appear rather than them flowing with the text. The story has far too many digressions, with little purpose to them (much of the laboured Peninsular War and Waterloo material), and far too many names are dropped into and out of pages. Some chapters serve little than to re-create early C19th London and its society but to little purpose. The central mystery for the reader –

Strange’s discernment of Lady Pole's ‘tithe to faerie hell’ (and also his wife’s abduction to the same)

– is unrealistically overlooked again and again by someone who is meant to be the most intelligent magician of his age.

 

So why the four stars? Principally because the two key characters work well and are so interlocked. Mr. Norrell is the pedantic, bookish and fiercely controlling magician, selfishly hoarding all known magical texts in his secret library and banning all practical magic other than his own, promoting himself by working with the government. Jonathan Strange is the intuitive magician, who quickly catches up with Norrell and out-does his understanding and usage of magic with an iconoclastic attitude and what seems to Norrell like breathtaking arrogance.

They start out (about a 1/3rd of the way through the book) as teacher and pupil, level out as equals working together, clash as rivals with differing ideas about the promotion of magical knowledge and use, and finally are bound together in an acre-wide umbra of perpetual darkness that Strange has incurred as the result of challenging faerie power.

 

 

The legend of the human-born, faerie-raised Raven King, ancient originator of much of the magic Norrell and Strange study, is a key element in what is entrancing about the book. He is an Arthurian figure, destined to return to rule the North, from his lost domain at Newcastle, hedged about by magically moving forests, and using the many forgotten ‘faerie roads’ that connect faraway places by green walled alleys. We get a glimpse of what he is about and hints of his imminent return (to Strange’s delight and Norrell’s horror and terror). A good deal of the book handles local northern place names with ease – Richmond and Easby Abbey, Northallerton, Worksop, Skipton

 

It also seemed that the author seemed to have a personal axe to grind on the theme of religion v. magic (her father is a Methodist minister) - the raising of Lady Pole is almost an exact replay of the healing of Jairus' daughter (minus faerie magic), and variously the author includes both Moses and Aaron *and* John Wesley amongst those who have had faerie-aided lives.

 

I loved the ending as much as anything in the book –

Strange’s frightening but willing submission to madness; his imprisonment in the unending tower of night; the realignment of practical magic in the isle bubbling up through the cracks in the pavement to all and sundry (even girls, to Norrell’s horror); the coming together of Jonathan and Norrell; the rescue of Arabella (bit too vague how it was done though).

Despite my grievances with it, the ‘story’ of it wins through and I am eager for a sequel.

 

****

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I'd agree with most of that, Colyngbourne. I think most of your objections would be met simply by some judicious editing, which was at the heart of what I found to be weak about it: it is far too long with sections that simply saunter on for pages more than is necessary.

 

I'm not sure that mention of The Life of Jonathan Strange leads to the conclusion you suggest - after all this is a retrospective story wrapped up with the history of English magic, so its encompassing works that are possbily some time into the future of the story's timeline seems to be in accord with the frequent references to other scholarly works.

 

I'd certainly agree that characterisation is thin, though that improves towards the end, and it is indeed disconcerting to find the welter of characters resurfacing after long absence to play their parts in the denouement (all of which reinforces the need to prune the middle).

 

I didn't object to the spellings, which all helped the sense of evoking a narrative from the early 1800s. To be honest they really aren't arbitrary. If you read, say, Austen in editions that retain original spelling you'll find that nearly everything is the same as today but then a spelling such as 'chuses' will suddenly hit you.

 

I haven't yet read The Ladies of Grace Adieu and really must get round to it!

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  • 1 year later...

I've recently entered the world of audiobooks, I have very fond memories of this title and decided it would be a pleasure to hear it read to me instead of wrestling with my massive hardback copy again.

 

It was an utter pleasure! A fantastic book to listen to, just as good as reading it in fact, I must admit I've never been to intrigued by audiobooks but can now see the appeal, but I imagine some books work better than others in this format. I think some stories are meant to be read out loud. I have The Hobbit on my To-Be-Heard pile, which I believe to be a true "oral" story if ever there was one.

 

Anyway, back to JS&MN. It's like falling back into a world that is so fully realised and comfortably familiar but with he surprising addition of myths and magic.

This is the second time I've enjoyed the story and it doesn't die off with repetition, the characters are like people you've met before and are now getting back in touch with.

Oddly enough I found myself disliking both of the magicians a little more than the first time, they both have annoying facets to their personalities. I couldn't stand Norrell's need for control or Strange's flamboyant hubris. This is why they are such good characters, they are fallible "heroes."

 

The effect of "The Gentleman" was just as strong. He's such a good villian, so self-centred and flippantly powerful. I enjoyed that his downfall was a result of a simple choice of the wrong friend.

 

There is so much to talk about with this book because it has so many characters, so much depth and a lot of story. As for the editing debate I'm a little undecided. I think the detail and length of the book is part of it's strength. I approached it as a book to get lost in, and it easily accomplished that. The only part of the narrative that I found to drag a little was the portion set in Venice.

 

As for the ending, it is masterful. Everything is concluded that needs to be concluded and the rest is left to the readers imagination which, after reading the pages that have gone before the last, is certain to be a little more fertile than it was to begin with.

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  • 6 months later...

I really came at this book wanting very much to enjoy and wallow in it over winter, instead I faced a Herculean task just to plod through to the end as I had been assured that the last 200+ pages were worth the journey. They were good, but worth the journey? I don't know about that. On first appraisal, I thought, what's not to like about this book? 19th C style and setting? Love that. Huge, clunker of a book? Love that. Magicians? Well, Carter Beats The Devil is one of my favourite books. Malevolent faeries? Puck yes!

 

And it starts well. Norrell is an aggressive, go-getting, manipulative magician, and the scene when he brings the statues to life to tell of what they have witnessed down through the years was inspired. But then, it was downhill from thereon in.

 

The problems I had with this book are myriad. The characters are weak, as previously noted by posters. Norrell, far from being a powerful magician as promised in the opening, becomes a pompous, vain, puffing, pouting, petulant...bore. Strange, is thoroughly dull up until he induces madness, when admittedley something special happens and the reader finally becomes interested. Strange's adventures abroad helping Wellington, while containign moments of literary wonderment, go on for far too long and ultimately are irrelevant to the main thrust of the book. And as for that main thrust, well, is there one? It seemed to me that the book consists of a handful of well-written vignettes cast adrift on a sea without a main current pulling them along. The novel is like Lady Pole - lots of great ideas going on behind the scenes but lacking the ability to translate them to the audience.

 

This book could have easily been half the size and not lost any of what makes it good. Easily. So what was good? The gentleman with the thistle down hair was pretty enjoyable - childish, petulant, scheming and entirely selfish - just as I like my faeries. His hold over Black and Lady Pole was quite terrifying, as was the magic he conjured forbidding them to talk of their enchantment. Strange's madness was dark and forbidding. Strange's dead soldiers. All great but their power watered down by being thrown into a huge clunker of a book that you had to wade through to discover anythign worthwhile. Size isn't always everything - it depends what you do with it.

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