November 7, 2007

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

(Beware, spoilers may follow.)

Since I came to Japan I have not been reading too many English books. I really enjoy trying to read novels in Japanese, and am currently (slowly) fighting my way through Haruki Murakami's "Kafka by the Sea." I leave English books, which I devour, as fodder for passing time on the airplane. I can't sleep on planes, so the ten to twelve hour flights from Japan to America are exercises in endurance and boredom for me. Reading English books is one good way to pass the time.

Typically I will read from two to three books on one trans-pacific flight. On my last trip out I bought Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell". This was a good book if for no other reason that I was unable to finish it in one flight. It actually lasted four flights (three of them were barely noticeable sub-three hour flights though) before I got through the 1006 page monster.

In my little databases of books read I gave this title a 7.5. It is a little odd because while reading the book, I was really drawn into it. The book has a peculiar language, spelling words in antiquated (or just outright strange for the sake of creating an atmosphere) way, and with Victorian era sensibilities. For the spelling, most noticeable was "show" -> "shew" / "showed" to "shewed" and so on. It is actually very annoying at first, then later on becomes only mildly annoying.

The novel is written in a quite victorian-era style, and reads like a serialized Dickens novel. There is entirely too much description, and too much emphasis on the social habits of upper-class gentlemen. Vast portions of the novel are just boring.

The portions having to do with magic are quite interesting (aside from anything Mr. Norrell has to say, which is intentionally boring) but unlike many books in the fantasy genre does not linger over the magical descriptions and incantations. The magical theory is very well developed, and expounded upon in crazy long footnotes, and there is an extensive history and library of books about magical theory in this world. It is an impressive accomplishment to flesh out the world so thoroughly, and in ways reminds me of the Lord of the Rings.

Near the end the story starts to speed up, and becomes quite engaging, but infuriatingly the ending is sudden and somehow unsatisfying. It feels like there is a deeper story about the meta-story of Mr. Strange and Mr. Norrell's actions as part of the Raven King's plans, but that is only hinted at.

Still, overall it was an engrossing read. I only lament that it was so unnecessarily long, and after reading it I am not sure that I am the better for it. Unlike most of the trashy fiction that I read on airplanes that are short sci-fi or fantasy novels, this one was long and required a commitment to get through. I'm a bit conflicted about that.

Has anyone else read this one? Comments?


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