four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
13-Nov-Dec-2004
user_rating: 
0

A-JonathanStrangeIn early 19th-century England, a community of magicians unsuccessfully strives to rejuvenate its trade. In the shadowy past hovers the legendary Raven King. Taken as a child by fairies, he rose as King of England and Faerie, transporting magic from the latter to the former. He’s long since disappeared, but his prophecy remains: "Two magicians will appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second long to behold me …" The first magician to emerge is Mr. Gilbert Norrell, a fussy bookworm with practical magic under his belt. Then the second magician appears in the form of Jonathan Strange, a young, handsome aristocrat. Under Norrell’s tutelage, they use magic to aid the British army in the Napoleonic Wars. But rivalries fast develop as Strange pursues a wilder, riskier form of magic than his mentor. And when he starts to summon Raven King, he endangers the world as he knows it.
Bloomsbury. 782 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 1582344167

Christian Science Monitor 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The book looks like one of those omnivorous tomes that couldn’t bare to drop a single passage, but it reads like a distillation of some far larger body of work, a mere sliver of what it could have included. … Either by instinct or design, Clarke drops supernatural elements into the plot slowly and sparingly, luring fantasy readers along, while acclimating skittish newcomers to this genre gradually." Ron Charles

Rocky Mountain News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Clarke is] a great admirer of Charles Dickens and has produced a work every bit as enjoyable as The Pickwick Papers, with more than a touch of the early Anne Rice thrown in for good measure. … Clarke has written a 19th century classic; there’s little doubt it will have readers clamoring for more." Ed Halloran

St. Petersburg Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Clarke creates]… a style that pulls off tricks as impressive as any her magicians perform, ranging seamlessly from wryly understated social comedy to passionately lyrical fantasy. … it holds enough wonder and heartache for a dozen novels. And I’ll never look at a mirror quite the same way again." Colette Bancroft

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The first 200 pages or so are full of witty dialogue, cunning observations and intriguing footnotes, but it’s not clear at first whether this book will be anything more than a lovingly crafted pastiche, an overly extended exercise in style and tone more to be admired than enjoyed. Patience is rewarded, however, and Clarke ultimately proves that her gargantuan story is one well worth telling." Michael Berry

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Of course, in a novel of Strange’s scope there are other themes, other subplots, other finely drawn characters ... but Clarke’s most impressive show of authorial skill is in how she resolves this tension without destroying it." Nisi Shawl

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Clarke’s novel, I’m pleased to say, just about deserves the fuss. … What keeps this densely realized confection aloft is that very quality of reverence to the writers of the past." Gregory Maguire

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Though I admire Susanna Clarke’s imaginative dexterity and deeply enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I didn’t find it quite as spellbinding as expected." Michael Dirda

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The tricks, spells, illusions and footnotes—endless footnotes—also arrive at a tireless yet wearying pace. … Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been celebrated as an adult Harry Potter story, but it is more like a flatter and flabbier one." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

Critics have billed Clarke’s first novel, "longlisted" for the Booker Prize, as the Harry Potter for adults (as if Harry didn’t appeal to us in the first place!). Critics agree that Jonathan Strange, which almost lives up to the hype, dredges up more magic and originality than Harry’s golden snitch. They don’t agree on what the novel is—a military history, a Victorian novel, a romance (with magic thrown in, of course)? Its ambiguity doesn’t prevent comparison to literary greats: Dickens, Austen, Umberto Eco, and fantasy legends Neal Stephenson, Philip Pullman, and Neil Gaiman. Indeed, the novel has something for everyone, especially those willing to thumb through 200 pages before the plot thickens. Austen fans will enjoy the conventional tone; fantasy buffs will embrace Clarke’s supernatural elements; history lovers will swoon as imagined characters meet Napoleon. And most will love the surprising twists and dazzling footnotes, studded with elaborate historical details. Still, not everyone will see past Clarke’s near encyclopedic details—just reverse the adage "a little goes a long way," and you get the point. But, critics look forward to the sequel. As the Christian Science Monitor put it, "Move over, little Harry. It’s time for some real magic."