Benjamin Baxter

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: My Admiration Does Not Lessen My Hatred One Whit

In Reviews on January 5, 2009 at 10:07 pm

Fantasy kinda sucks. As a longtime fan of the genre, I’ve somewhat earned some right to say that.

  • While “Harry Potter” is fun to read — excepting the fifth book — its colorful characters and whimsical settings are bogged down by weak writing.
  • “His Dark Materials” has similar strengths and flaws, and was worsened even further by the author’s tendency to proselytize.
  • “The Wheel of Time” cribs liberally from Tolkien — an author who wrote his books solely because he liked making up languages.
  • The worst of all of them is that “Eragon” series; it reads like it was written by a 19-year-old homeschooler from Montana. In part because it was.
  • Among good modern fantasists, Neil Gaiman tends to exhibit the same self-indulgent fascination with multi-pantheon crossovers in whatever he writes, leaving Terry Brooks alone above reproach; it helps that Brooks doesn’t take his fantasy settings seriously.

It’s become a rule, therefore, that fantasy as a whole is a thin, shallow genre of fiction with especially egregious pretensions that it has meaningful depth and that it’s romanticism profound rather than transparent. Science fiction, unfortunately, is much of the same. Fortunately, because the overall crappiness of fantastic literature is a rule, there are going to be exceptions. I just spent the better part of two days — almost spilling over into three — reading one of the most important and, dare I say, literary exceptions in recent memory.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” 2004 had interested me ever since I first saw it on the discount bookshelves and bestseller lists, but I decided against bothering with it. I didn’t have the money to buy it, and it was too contemporary to be in the school library, besides. Having recently graduated to the local library, I saw it Thursday last and, on a whim, checked it out.

Though buying this book in its native Britain would set me back a good 7 pounds, I’d call it an even trade: the hardcover weighs almost that much. There are nearly 800 pages in the hardcover version I spent a weekend reading — that makes it roughly the size of a King James Bible after a begat-ectomy.

Despite that it reads like Jane Austen and the humanity of its title characters are straight out of Dickens — if you’re sure I exaggerate, you’ll appreciate this book more than I did — I enjoyed every moment.

I shouldn’t make my admiration seem so unlikely — I was bound to like “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” from the very start. It has the flair of a finely researched history, and more footnotes per page than “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” a history in which the author, for whatever reason, apologizes for including as many footnotes as he does.

It’s no criticism of the novel to say that these footnotes were my favorite part of the 7-pound blunt object that is “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,” and I suppose quite a few readers came to the same conclusion. Indeed, the footnotes were enjoyable enough, and added so much to the world of the novel, that when the author decided to make her second book an anthology of stories, at least a few of these stores were inspired by her first novel’s footnotes.

There’s a lot of story in the book, and it would be difficult to summarize it without unbecoming spoilers and lengthy exposition, but, given fantasy these days, that depth is one of the great charms of “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.” Suffice it to say that the whole of it focuses on the careers of two British magicians of the Regency period, and is full of charmingly fleshed-out characters.

The early 19th century is the such a refreshing setting for fantasy. Rather than a world where dwarves and elves and orcs are the face of the fantastic, one of the great squabbles between the two title characters is over the status and usefulness of fairies, creatures that had once encompassed the whole of British fantasy before Tolkien injected high fantasy with his mish-mash blending of Old Norse mythology and Anglo-Saxon epic. However well-written “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” is, and however well it stands on its own merits, that it ignores the 50-year-old precedent of swords and sorcery, a subgenre that might as well be mimeographed from the worst parts of “The Lord of the Rings,” is one of the greatest strengths that author Susanna Clarke chose for her world of British magic.

After reading so much of dwarves and elves and orcs, a reprieve was due; we needed a reprieve into densely imagined real literature from dense-minded pulp literature, even if that it lasts only a weekend.

But what a weekend.

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