Details: (c) 2004 Susanna Clarke; Pub 2004 Bloomsbury; ISBN 0-7475-7055-8
Verdict: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is short of perfection, but certainly original and worth reading.
Reasons for reading it: The whole world seems to be raving about this, both mainstream and genre people. What absolutely convinced me I had to read it was papersky's review though.
How it came into my hands: Lochee library. Lochee is this grotty little suburb where people tell me I shouldn't go after dark (OMG! It's full of poor people! Run away!), but it's a really good place for books, particularly SF/F. I happened to be there and wandered into the library not really expecting to get much beyond better than average romances, but it turns out that since I was last there they've acquired JS&MN, and The Life of Pi and The Autograph Man. So that nicely took care of my reading list for the next several weeks.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell seems to me like a very, very good children's book. Yes, it's 800 pages long, and yes, the language is old-fashioned and sophisticated, but I would unhesitatingly recommend it to any child who has picked up a decent vocabulary through reading habits. It doesn't seem to have the knowingness I expect from adult fantasy writing; it expects a huge suspension of disbelief and a rooting for the good guys that seem to fit into traditional fairy tales more than modern reworkings of them. (Of course, fairy tales were not originally meant for children, but that's how they are perceived in our culture now.) I think part of that is the 19th century style: I have read more children's books from that era than adult books, and my phase of being really into Dickens, Hardy and Emily Brontë was when I was a young teenager anyway.
The other reason is that there's a lot of explicit world-building going on, and the level of incluing and slightly didactic tone makes the book seem as if it were written for kids. The background is incredibly detailed; I really liked the 'secret history' setting, all the details of the way that this continuity is different from ours. And it brings in real historical figures very skillfully, Byron, Wellington, Pitt the Younger, George IV and so on, which is something that's very often annoying in alternate history and really works in JS&MN.
The characters are very, very nicely drawn. I was particularly impressed with Mr Norrell who is not at all likeable but still manages to be sympathetic. The emotions are quite understated, (in contrast with the generally rich language) yet extremely poignant. The deaths and losses, the quarrel between Strange and Norrell midway through, the deep friendships... I really cared about these emotional events.
The plot in terms of physical events I'm not so keen on. It's an obvious one, but JS&MN really is too long. It rambles, most of what happens contributes to character and background rather than actually furthering the plot. I don't much mind that terribly, especially as the setting is very well done, but it does seem like an unnecessarily elaborate prose version of a still life in some ways.
Although the world-building is truly amazing, the period setting doesn't work too well for me. The language definitely feels like a modern pastiche of 19th century writing, rather than being convincing. And although the historical detail of the political development of England from Mediaeval times to the 19th century is very, very good, the actual 19th century itself looks like painted stage set. This may be partially deliberate, since within the novel the following verse is referred to:
This land is all too shallowThere's a lot of stuff about magical reality protruding into mundane reality, and I think that's very much the way that the early 19th century setting and the actual modern context of the book interact. And of course it fits in with the whole idea of a secret history, where the timeline is somewhat like the real one but somewhat different.
It is painted on the sky
I think a large part of it is that the book has very 21st century sensibilities about gender and particularly race. When the narration is required to express sentiments that would appear racist to a modern reader, it gets painfully self-conscious and that throws the reader out of the illusion of being in period. The whole plot arc about Stephen Black just made me cringe from beginning to end. Unlike the other characters who are incredibly three-dimensional, he's really just too good to be true, creating a kind of Uncle Tom's Cabin-esque 'good negro' effect. Not that I would want the book to be overtly racist, obviously, and leaving non-WASP characters out altogether is no sort of solution, but I just felt that aspect badly lets JS&MN down.
Anyway, JS&MN is an absolutely gorgeous piece of escapism. Reading it really felt like discovering a new world, which is a great achievement in a novel.
On a slightly related topic, AllConsuming is being revamped right now, so all my old links to book information are broken, and it doesn't seem to list UK published books at all, and it's generally not very functional. Since JS&MN is a big Publishing Phenomenon, I've linked directly to the official publicity site for this review. But if AllConsuming doesn't sort out its teething problems I may have to go back to linking to Amazon, which would annoy me.