At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England’s history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England–until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.
Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.
I feel like that this novel should be a classic, and it might already be, but I haven’t ever heard much about it. I got the audiobook version, which is narrarated by Simon Prebble, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this while I worked. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of the most magical novels I’ve ever read/listened to, and it’s not just because the titular characters are magicians. No, it’s beautiful and whimsical and ever so slightly haunting, with passages that go between mirrors, fey castles with names like Lost Hope, and mentions of the Raven King. The prose lovingly describes the scenery, characters, conversations, and politics in such detail that you can almost see it. A tv series based on the novel began in June of this year on BBC and it’s gotten very good ratings thus far, so I’m probably going to watch this eventually.
For the most part, all the characters were delightful to read about, however, I very much disliked Mr. Gilbert Norrell for most of the book. I felt he was paranoid and easily influenced by people that I thought were obviously close to him for selfish gain. He was a talented magician, but he tried to crush others who were interested in magic or claimed to be magicians, which I felt was counterintuitive to his goal of restoring English magic. And can I just say that I heard the term “English magic” about a thousand times throughout the course of this book and it really started to rankle after a while. Jonathan Strange was a much more exciting character to read about as he did most of the travelling. He was fighting Napoleon Bonaparte in Spain and Belgium (and maybe France) and he also travelled to Venice in the latter parts of the book. The segment in Venice was charming at first, but took a very dark and curious turn towards the end, no pun intended.
Did I mention that there were fairies as well? These are not the Tinkerbell pixies of our childhood, no; these are the dark and haunting fairies that the oldest legends tell of. They spirit away mortals into their realm, where they dance and parade through dark halls for eternity, surrounded by haunted forests and the bodies of slain foes. These are the very best kind of fairies. The “gentleman with the thistledown hair” is a major part of the storyline and is the main reason that everything begins to unravel. Parts are almost heartbreaking, really.
This is a must-read for fantasy/ speculative fiction lovers, especially those who enjoy a bit of historical fiction. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is quite a long work, having around a thousand pages, give or take some depending on the edition. I absolutely recommend the audiobook version, which was outstanding- Simon Prebble really makes the characters come to life.