Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norell is an historical fantasy written in a voice that seems to be channelling the spirit of Charles Dickens while telling a story that seems to be equal parts history and sheer lunacy.
Either this book is a work of staggering genius or it is a distractingly complete picture of the author’s madness. Nothing else could explain the depth of world building that has gone into this novel. Pages and pages of footnotes containing anecdotes, stories, histories and citations from fictitious texts and authors abound throughout in such profusion that it becomes shocking.
This level of detail developed for a book is rare, putting this much information into the book is almost unheard of in a published novel, for good reason. It’s almost impossible to include every tidbit of the world without making the story bog down in it’s own fetid juices.
I said almost impossible because it appears that Susanna Clarke has created a miracle of modern prose in that she includes every detail, every nuance of the alternate history that she has created and it is beautiful and rich and jaw-droppingly awesome rather than fetid and corpulent.
This is a story of two magicians in a time when England needs them most (the Napoleonic War, when else?) after generations of English magic being nothing more than sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors. The mistakes of one lead to the downfall of another and through it all a tapestry emerges that indicates that even they are pawns to a spell cast centuries ago that is tugging and pulling them across time.
Susanna Clarke’s magic is definitely the mystical kind. There are no rules described to the reader and much of what the magicians do is mysterious even to them. This serves to make a story that resonates on a human level without placing magical descriptions in the way to stumble upon.
The world, the people, the faeries, the magic, the story are all part of the spell that Susanna Clarke has cast upon us. This is a book deserving of every form of praise that it has gotten, probably more.