Author: Susanna Clarke
Trade Paperback, 800 pages
Publication date: 2005
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First things first, as they say. This is not a novel written (to the best
of my knowledge) by someone with a working knowledge of magic. It is not
aimed at the magickal/Pagan community. It is intended for the mass media,
where it has been very well received, having appeared on several best
sellers lists. Having made that disclaimer... on to my review.
No sooner had I begun to read of the author's concept of the early 19th
century's society of magicians than I found myself being swept along on the
swell of a well-told story. A story, furthermore, which was both compelling
and plausible. A society of magicians? No, a society of those
knowledgeable about magicians, knowledgeable about the history of magic, but
one whose members could not trouble themselves to exert the slightest bit of
energy to actually perform a magical act. After all, they were gentlemen
and couldn't be expected to actually do anything.
The book is not fast-paced in the modern sense (or in any sense). It
proceeds at a leisurely pace, much in tune with the time in which it is set
(1806 to 1817). For some younger readers this may prove to be a bit of a
problem, but this is a book which is intended to be savored and enjoyed, not
read in a hurry. It is a leisurely stroll through the park, not a race to
the finish line.
In many ways, it is a story which is very current. It is a story about the
conflict between the majority of magicians (theoretical) and the minority
(practical). It is a story about the ego necessary to be a practical
magician, and the ease with which one may be seduced from practicality to
Although in no way a novel about modern magic, it is an extremely enjoyable
story. Ms. Clarke spins a tale which is, if not probably and believable, at
the very least illustrative of the powers of belief and self-delusion. Mr.
Norrell, who fancies himself Great Britain's only practical magician is far
more given to research than to actual workings. In fact, the majority of
his practical work is confined to making sure that no other practical
magicians arise to challenge his supremacy. Mr. Strange, on the other hand,
finds himself thrust into the role of magician and, due to the lack of
magical texts to learn from (all those available having been snapped up by
Mr. Norrell for this personal library) forced to create his own spells from
inspiration, desperation, and other "non-classical" sources.
From the standpoint of those of us used to magical thinking this fantasy is
far, far removed from what we have come to expect. There is no Hogwarts
here; no friendly fairies; no ceremonial conjurations. It is a world where
the "how" of magic has been sadly neglected for centuries in favor of the
study of past magical events. Study has replaced practice. And the arrival
of one practical magician leads to megalomania (and not a little paranoia).
This is not a world many modern magicians would want to exist in.
The transition of Jonathan Strange from non-magician, to a student of Mr.
Norrell; from student to opponent of that same Mr. Norrell is, perhaps, not
unexpected. Indeed, it seems almost pre-ordained because of the very
temperaments of the individuals involved. It illustrates the gulf which
exists between the magician with almost unlimited access to research sources
and the magician who must rely on his wits and native intelligence. It
illustrates, admirably in my opinion, the need for "field work" to grow in
the area of magical workings. However, the transition from opponent to
respected equal comes as a bit of a shock.
Ms. Clarke illustrates how easily one may be led astray by the opinions of
others, as Mr. Norrell is by his "friends" Mr. Drawlight and Mr. Lascalle.
His isolation from the greater society, and his dependence simply on his
magic serve to show how necessary it is for those in the magical community
(whether real or fictional) to continue to interact with the "normal" world
in order not to drift into their own little universe. A magician who loses
touch with reality is of no use to anyone, including himself.
Mr. Norrell spends much of his time dwelling on the dangers inherent in the
practice of magic (of which there are, admittedly, many) and the reasons why
some things should not be done. His former pupil (Mr. Strange) goes to the
opposite pole by doing magic without a concern for the dangers which are, in
fact, present. Both err by assuming that their personal beliefs are
"reality" and disregard the equally valid opposing point of view.
The end of the novel caught me a bit by surprise. I really had expected a
very different ending.
This is not something to read if you are not able to give it your full
attention. It will, very likely, grab you by your collar and compel your
full attention. It is not for everyone, as the pacing will undoubtedly put
some people off. American readers may have some surprises with the
spellings included (chuse for choose, for example); still it does give a
unique flavor to the writing. Overall, however, I have to say that I am
glad I got this book. Rating it on a basis of one through five stars, it is
easily worth four stars.
Reviewed by Mike Gleason