Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Synopsis: Two landed British gentlemen of the Napoleonic era flounce about being prissy, ineffectual twits. Also there are fairies.
Lately I’ve finally been picking up books that I’ve heard great things about for a long time, to great success! To continue this trend, I moved on to “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” next. I’ve heard from many sources that it’s an astounding novel.
Holy crap were those sources wrong. This is the most tedious, plodding, overhyped exercise in fiction I’ve come across in a while. I began to dread returning to it.
The basic conceit is that the landed gentry of Britain don’t have much to do, and so spend all of their time in frivolous pursuits like reading about old magics, and talking about old magics, and holding sessions about magics and writing great essays about the history of magic, but never actually doing any magic themselves. Until Mr Norrell comes in and changes all that by, I dunno, actually doing some of things they all read and discuss at length. But Norrell is just as ineffectual as everyone else, and the focus of all the action is not about the magic, or the Napoleonic wars, or the machinations of the fairies, or anything of the slightest bit of actual INTEREST. Rather, it focuses on how prissy and shallow and pompous everyone is.
I get that this is supposed to be a comedy. It’s just a type of comedy I find boring to the highest degree. A bunch of befuddled idiots faffing about because they’ve got way too much time and money? I realize this is a popular British thing, a sort of Comedy of Manners or something, and I’ve always found it stupid. This was just like all those. The only thing it did was convince me that all landed gentry need to be rounded up and executed for extracting the wealth of the working class to chase their own worthless follies. We (in the US) didn’t revolt hard enough, dammit. There’s still nobles left!
I read for several hundred pages. Nothing happened. In a book with fairies and the Napoleonic wars! And I didn’t even get halfway through this brick.
The worst part was the teasing. The novel is always right on the edge of interesting. I was always sure that on the next page, or maybe just in the next chapter, something really cool was going to happen. All these neat things are shown just enough to get our attention, and then quickly buried under more tomfoolery with manners and courtesies and being stymied by someone’s utter lack of proper decorum! Until eventually I lost all hope, I realized nothing would ever be fulfilled and I was just being strung along, and I gave up in disgust.
I realize some people find this sort of thing delightful. Some insane reviewer said ‘How can a book of over 800 pages still be too short?’ (paraphrased), because I guess if you love nothing happening it can very well keep not happening forever. But I’m not one of those people. Yeesh.
I really like this review. I’m a bit of a sucker for angry rants. :D
with my real-life book club (also posted on Fantasy Literature ): Tadiana: This book is like a mashup of Jane Austen, or maybe Charles Dickens, and fantasy, with Regency-era British magicians and charming, vindictive and devious faeries. It creates an incredibly rich, complex and detailed fantasy world; the Raven King mythology is fantastic. The main plotline of this novel deals with the on-and-off friendship between two very different magicians: Mr Norrell, who is bookish, stuffy and reclusive, and Jonathan Strange, who’s a younger, charming and impetuous person, and their dealings and troubles with Faerie and other magical places and characters, but there are several subplots intricately woven into this tale. It thoughtfully explores some interesting issues that you wouldn’t expect, like the difficulties women, servants and minorities have had in making their voices heard. This is a truly unique and inventive novel. It challenged my brain and fascinated me. I adored it. Rest of book club: This book is soooo long. Aaand kind of confusing, not to mention slow and boring. Tadiana: I love the dry humor. The tongue-in-cheek quasi-scholarly footnotes totally crack me up. Rest of book club: Seriously, what is the deal with those bizarre footnotes? They’re just weird. Tadiana: Imma buy this in hardback and keep it forever. Rest of book club: DNF
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And Happy New Year!
I’d give the Netflix TV show a watch – it focuses more on the magical side of things. That said, about halfway through, it gets distinctly more magical, and continues to ramp up from there. You still need some enjoyment of the “slice of life” side, but it doesn’t lean on that nearly as heavily.