Let me start by saying that the world building involved in the creation of this book is phenomenal. You don’t quite get how detailed it is when you first pick it up. You don’t understand the magnitude. Then you reach your first footnote, and then it dawns on you. Not only has Clarke breathed life into these diversified characters, but behind them is an enormous tapestry that serves as the backdrop for their world.
Having just finished this giant 920-page behemoth, I think I’ll start with what made me love it and rave so fondly over it.
I. The Pros
The world feels like it’s been painted on a canvas. From the battlefields of Waterloo to the sleepy, cozy visage of Venice. Clarke has quite a way with her descriptions, and at times it feels as though her world makes more sense than our own. In this world, magic isn’t something questioned or pondered about over a cup of coffee, there was actually a king with one foot in the real world and another foot in the magical world of fairy (don’t worry, I’ll get to the historical aspects of the fairy world in a little bit.) Magic is something that need only be awakened to give it power. It exists just beneath the surface, and all it takes is a scratch to bring it forth. Magic though has grown out of taste, so to speak, and the world has forgotten it. The history has been rewritten to better suit the tastes of those in the present, and therefore there does not seem to be any real need to explore magic further – especially not the magic of the aforementioned king.
Two Rage-Inducing Protagonists
A surprising aspect of this book is that the magician who you will likely identify with better isn’t introduced until well into the novel. I suppose when you have so much heft to your manuscript, you can afford to belay your star character until a little later on. Mr. Norrell isn’t a bad guy exactly, he is just very particular. That is to say, he’s stuffy, socially awkward, and despises change. So it’s surprising to see that he is the main instigator in the revitilization of English magic. At times he can be insipid, simple-minded, cruel, and a downright thief. However, you understand why he does it. You don’t approve of his actions, but you don’t think he should be shot for it either. He’s a rather unlikeable main character, and then once he surrounds himself with scoundrels like Drawlight and Lascelles, he becomes a bit of a puppet between the two.
Then comes Jonathan Strange, an entirely different type of magician. He is gregarious and sociable, but since he has more wealth than he knows what to do with, he ends up going into magic out of boredom. Once Strange becomes Norrell’s pupil, that’s when the real meat of the novel comes forth. It takes a good chunk of the book to get to this point of course, but the build-up is quite worth it. When Strange goes to assist the British military in the Napoleonic wars, and then is targeted by the fairy “gentleman with the thistle-down hair”, you find yourself pulling at your hair. He never does what you want him to do, when he ought to do it. He can be very short-sighted, and (as apparently many magicians do), buries his head in books for far too long.
This is quite an interesting set of characters for the reader to be rooting for, but you do indeed find yourself understanding both sides of their tale.
Land of the Fairies
The way that the fairy world is handled was perhaps my favorite aspect of the book. Frequently in folklore fairies are seen as tricksters, deceivers, and shape-shifters. It’s amusing to see how an entire land of the fairy world could be so similar to the real world, but not quite the same at all. Seemingly innocent locations are turned into horrific scenes of slavery and servitude, and arrogant or overly curious bystanders could find themselves forever trapped in a spell. The fairy world isn’t just a place down the road, or in another country, it appears as another reality, and frequently overlaps with the real world in ways that you wouldn’t imagine.
At one point when Strange views this disconnection of worlds, he watches a man walk down a typical street, deftly dodging various tree branches in the fairy realm which he can’t see, but intuitively knows that they are there. It’s a subtle magic, and the craziness of the fairies reminded me very much of the Endless seen in the Sandman series, though not nearly as cohesive. The main fairy that we follow is arrogant, petulant, and his powers are too great for him to manage them properly.
II. The Cons
Worth the Time to Read
I am a very slow reader. I take my time with books, especially ones as complex as this, so it was quite a time commitment for me to choose to read this book. My friends had been urging me to give it a try, promising that I would love it. At over 900 pages (in my eBook copy at least), that was a difficult decision. I could easily see this being divided up into three parts like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the plot is so complex that I imagine some readers would find it hard to pick up where the story left off.
The ending, though it closes all the loose ends so to speak, didn’t leave me very satisfied. I wanted to find out more, and I wanted to know the ultimate fate of our two main characters. The fact that this wasn’t clear made me a bit sad, but to be honest, when writing a book this long I could imagine she was reluctant to add even more onto it with a more detailed ending. I would have stayed along for the ride, though I could see some jumping the bandwagon when it went beyond 1k pages.
The footnotes take some getting used to. They span several pages, and can be quite engrossing. The end result is that you’ll find yourself reading through pages of footnotes at the end of a chapter, and forget what was going on in the main storyline. It’s truly a testament to the breath and depth of Clarke’s world, but especially on some eReader devices, I could see this causing problems. My personal copy didn’t link back easily to the original footnote, and frequent bookmarks can cause confusion. It takes the flow out of the writing somewhat, but usually the footnote stories are quite enjoyable, so I honestly can’t count this against the book too much.
III. Final Rating
I can say without hesitation that this book was easy for me to give five stars on. Sure the length is intimidating, but that really shouldn’t dissuade you from trying it out. It’s worth the time, and you’ll appreciate it once you’ve finished it. Especially if you’re a fan of fantasy, surreal worlds, and the Victorian era.
- Is it a fun read? Absolutely! Toward the end of the book, I was having trouble putting it down, and flew through a few hundred pages without even realizing it. The build up can be slow, but the pay off is very worth it at the end.
- Would you recommend it to others? Oh yes, definitely. It’s probably going to be up there with epic fantasy tales that I love (I’m a die-hard LotR fan), and it will certainly influence my views of magicians from now on. This almost felt like a case study of two magicians, so I feel like I’ve been given a behind-the-scenes look at the daily troubles magicians have to deal with. Harry Potter has a lot of politics in his future, that’s for sure!
- Would you re-read it? Simply due to the length, I don’t think so. However I’m a big highlighter and note-taker. I’ve peppered my copy with plenty of markings to keep me entertained the next time I’m picking it up to flip through a few pages.
- Does it stick with you?Can’t you tell? 🙂 The original friend who recommended this book told me that she was disappointed when she got to the end. She had gotten so used to being immersed in this Victorian pseudo-realistic magical world that it was sad to have to leave it. I found I had the same trouble myself. It sticks with you so much, that you’re frustrated that you can’t find more written on this very eclectic mixing of genres and styles.Though, I guess I could hop over and read on The Ladies of Grace Adieu, but I think I’ve left my partially read Dark Tower Book 4 gathering dust for too long, and I need time to digest this book a bit more. For such a long read, it’s going to be with me for quite some time.