Fantasy Historical Fiction

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

10 March 2020
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Book Cover Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury Publishing
September 8, 2004

Set in early-19th-century England, Clarke's novel introduces readers to a group of magicians from whom the "magic" has departed. Enter Mr. Norrell, a misanthropic, book-hoarding magician who takes up a challenge to prove that magic still exists.

After Mr. Norrell succeeds at his ambitious endeavor, he takes on a pupil, the charismatic Jonathan Strange, and together they begin to restore the sorry state of English magic. But a rift opens between these two allies, leading them to turn their magic on each other, and a darker, more sinister magic begins to reveal itself.

Clarke's ambitious epic is packed with twists and turns, as she leads readers through mysterious doorways, down magical pathways, and into other worlds. Filled with quirky characters and eerie places, it's frightening, moving, and very often witty. In her stunningly original and accomplished first novel, Susanna Clarke has created a completely convincing "historical" account magic's role in changing the course of history -- a work chock-full of the most fun a "smart" book has ever contained.


The overwhelming feeling after finishing this book is a sense of relief and then puzzlement that I committed so much time to complete the task. I found the book Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell a great disappointment on various levels, and for once I have to say that the TV production was so much better than the novel.

The characters were generally uninteresting including the two main protagonists. This is an era where magic has once again surfaced and even the magicians are unsure of their capability and the scope of their power. Mr Norell is a studious rather drab character intent on learning his craft from books and manuscripts. His arrogance wants him to be considered England’s only legitimate magician. Jonathan Strange is more a practical magician and lends a hand in fighting Napolean. Very bizarrely his magic seems almost whimsical and the English soldiers still die in huge numbers. The plot is so weak that the involvement with the Napoleonic Wars didn’t generate much interest. It was all very flat. What can be said is that the detail of the surroundings and story are considerable – even with footnotes to describe minutiae. The setting was okay and I did feel that the atmosphere of early 19th century England came through well.

I am surprised this book received the plaudits that it has and I can only assume that the context of the story was a big draw. We all want to believe that magic exists and that somewhere a magician is just waiting to develop the skills handed down from Merlin. If that was to happen I can only hope that it’s NOT to someone like Strange or Norrell and that there would be a wonderful plot of twists and surprises, with captivating characters to bring it all to life.

I may have been tempted to consider a higher rating if it had not been so long. The length really is a problem in a story that drifts at such a slow pace, with details I couldn’t care less about. I know I’m in the minority with this but I do hope you enjoy it much better than I did.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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