This book has taken so long to read it’s unreal. It is a big book – at something like 850 pages in my edition – and there’s a lot of detail to take in. As I talk about it, I think it’s going to be impossible for me to avoid spoilers, so if you haven’t read this yet, and plan to, be warned that there may be a few spoilers ahead. I would hate to the ruin the read for you.
Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me …
The year is 1806. England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very opposite of Norrell. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms the one between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.
There is so much to this book. It’s divided into three volumes, the first introducing us to Mr Norrell, the first magician in England for about 200 hundred years. He simultaneously wants to bring back English magic to England, and also keep it to himself. Theoretical magicians – that is, those who just read about the subject but can’t make a single spell work – are the subject of his ire. Volume two we meet Jonathan Strange, who had a not particularly pleasant childhood subject of his fathers ire. When his father dies, Strange inherits his lands, and decides to marry the girl of his dreams. But he doesn’t have a job, so when pressed he decides that he’ll simply become a magician, and can with no explanation do magic. Strange becomes Norrell’s pupil, goes to war on behalf of England against Bonaparte in Spain and France and dabbles with magic that he’s never dealt with before. Volume three deals with the fall out between the two magicians, and ties up the back story which started in volume one where Norrell bought a girl back from the dead.
The first thing to say that this is a well written book. The descriptions of England, fairy, Venice, Spain etc. are intricate and build this amazingly detailed world wherein magic, or the existence of magic, is a given thing and not a taboo. The characters are likewise detailed, although perhaps not all on the same level as Strange and Norrell. This is a world of enchantment, of things just not being as they seem, and the problems begin in the first few chapters when Norrell does a deal with a fairy to bring back Lady Pole from the dead. The fairy is a proverbial pain in the ass from that moment on.
Strange was the better of the two magicians. He was approachable, he worked for the army, he helped win the war. He translocated several cities, made rivers run different ways, made dead men talk [in a somewhat disastrous bit of magic because the dead men wouldn’t stop talking even though they were decomposing]. He was the magician that England wanted. And then there’s Norrell, who was unapproachable, unwilling to do magic for others, unwilling to concede others to read his books, or to even educate Strange in some of the more questionable stuff – mainly the fairy stuff, I think – because he didn’t want to reveal his own behaviours when he made the deal with the fairy when he raised Lady Pole from the dead.
What the book is about, more than the two magicians is the fairy. He is never named, but as the story goes on we can make some educated guesses. He is obsessed with the two magicians, with having stolen Lady Pole, for stealing Stranges wife and setting Strange on the dark path that ultimately doesn’t end well for the fairy. Then we have the character of Stephen Black. Head servant in the Walter Pole household, and entrapped in the same charm that has Lady Pole. The fairy loves Stephen, and wants to make him the king of England. Stephen knows this isn’t possible – son of a slave lost at sea, a black man – he can’t be king of any where. All he’d really like to know is his original name.
As I was reading through to the end, I annoyed myself as I didn’t see the similarities between Stephen Black’s story and that of The Raven King, which makes the ending all the more satisfying in how he actually did become King – in fairy.
In some ways this book reminded me of The Night Circus. The plot is building up to a big battle between the magicians, a battle of magic and principle but that doesn’t happen. Strange is trapped in the magic, and Norrell becomes trapped, but the person that does all the hard work and actually solves the problem of the fairy was Stephen Black. There was no epic battle of the magicians, they just had a falling out in the published world about the accepted role of magic, a fight of privileged men in the world of newspapers.
This was such a well written book, but it took so long to read. When I picked it up, more often than not I would fall asleep. I also wonder if it really needed to be so long, considering the slow burner that it was at the beginning – great for world building, and for helping me to catch up on my sleep… it’s one of those books that you have to dedicate a decent amount of time to in order to read and to make any progress – at least that’s what I found.
A quick note on the artwork – it was a great touch actually. The style of having the occasional engraving style artwork included at various points was definitely unique, and certainly added some depth of field to the novel for sure.
I don’t know how to rate this book. It was good, all encompassing, engrossing. But it was so long, and sleep inducing in parts that I am stumped…
Have you read this one? What did you think?