With the Peter Hamilton 2-part series behind me, I had room for another book this month. I elected to read the equally epic-length, also mid-aughts work Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Also of interest may be the fact that I saw the BBC series prior to reading the book, and I will be referencing that in this review.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
First published in 2004
This book was written in such a lovely manner that I never felt the urge to skim. The story is long and depends on characters that are neither grand nor good, and Clarke weaves it together fantastically. At the same time, I can’t truly say that I liked it better than the TV series. I suggest watching or starting the series if you like TV and don’t want to commit the time it inevitably takes to read the book.
The book was written in a style reminiscent of 19th century speech but with modern sensibilities included. I usually don’t adore writing style so much, but this book was incredibly consistent with its absolutely delightful style. It was a pleasure to read.
At the same time, it was a disaster to read. If you buy the book, get the Kindle version – the margins on the paperback (which I had) were altogether too small. The words went right into the crack of the book, and I had to bend the spine and make those awful lines up through the back. The old-style font was absolute garbage and wasn’t a pleasure to run my eyes over. It was a thick book, to boot (1,006 pages), which made all the aforementioned issues truly aggravating. While the story within the pages was fantastic, the binding was genuinely atrocious.
As far as story goes, Clarke depends on extraordinary Englishness of landscape, lore, and character to carry the story through. The background information is contained in a swath of rather detailed and commonly appearing footnotes that were well designed (though sometimes annoying). It was incredibly well researched, and the book really does deserve all the praise it received.
SPOILERS REVIEW (Including comparison to the TV Series)
Since there is a TV series and I’ve watched it, I wanted to compare this book to it. Interestingly, I thought there were pieces both from the series and from the book that outclassed each other.
First, the book was filled with a much richer backdrop. The footnotes summarized some of the invented book references that were much glanced over in the series, and this gave some much-needed background. I was especially impressed with the Theology of Magic information, since it gave such a great hint at the motivations of the fairies.
Also better in the book was the ending. Whereas the movie gave more power to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – who accidentally put all of English Magic into a butler – the book allowed said butler, Steven, to take a greater part in his own ascendance to King of Lost Hope. Strange and Norrell allowed England (yes, I think England is a character) to choose her own allies in the book. Free to do so, England chose to support Steven over the evil Gentleman Fairy. This made more sense, to me, than the accidental spells of the TV series.
However, there was one major additional scene that the series included which I thought vastly improved the work. In the book, Jonathan Strange has a servant, Jeremy, who is briefly mentioned several times as a loyal footman to his master. He appears throughout the book and is treated lowly as all servants – save for Childermass – are. Other than a name, he is relatively unimportant. In the series, Jeremy is seen bearing Strange’s burdens, including the burden of hauling the 40 magic books to the Peninsular War with his master.
In a dramatic battle scene that is briefly mentioned in a footnote of the book, the TV series chooses to kill Jeremy. Strange, who had treated Jeremy relatively badly up to that point, has a major character development moment as he chooses to tend to his man rather than the priceless books that were destroyed. The war becomes grittier, more terrifying, and more developmentally worthwhile in the TV series. I don’t think Clarke did a bad job with the war, but I do think the BBC was correct in making the choice to kill off Jeremy in the Peninsula.
New week, new month – and I hope you’ll be excited for the amazing set of books I’ll be reading in March!
If you’ve published a book, let me know in the comments – I’m doing Indie books in April and would love the chance to support authors I know!