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Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Obscure Cynical-Idealist reviews Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in Swifty's absence

Now that the Great Swifty has briefly left the midst of our blogosphere, it is my duty to follow after the Great Kamigoroshi's footsteps and guestblog on the Great Swifty's online abode.

Oh, but who am I to speaketh on the gloriously beautiful pages of this blog?

I, am none other than the ever humble fencetop lover, the one who has gladly sunk into obscurity in search of inner peace, the one and only Cynical-Idealist.

Okay, flowery language aside, I'm not here to spam this blog and whore mine, although my link is up there just in case no one remembers me. I've come to sing praises of a book.

I've just finished reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke's first ever novel and currently a well-acclaimed bestseller. I've had such a delightful time reading it that I've decided to kickstart my guestblogging here by reviewing this book.

Magic was once very much alive and flourishing in England, but when the Raven King left the country, magic began disappearing and faded into obscurity. By 1806, all traces of magic have seemingly deserted England. Magicians were still abound, but they were nothing more than theoretical magicians, scholars who met just to argue about ancient texts and theories of magic, and no practical magic was ever done at all.

But when it seemed that all traces of magic have left Britiannia for good, an eccentric old man was persuaded to step forth into the limelight and show himself to be the remaining practical magician in all of England. He was Mr Norrell.

Taking upon himself the task of bringing back Magic into England in an orderly fashion, Mr Norrell began making himself useful by resurrecting dead women and by aiding the government in their ongoing war with the French.

Thus began the revival of magic upon English soil by Mr Norrell and his only pupil, Jonathan Strange.

While Mr Norrell is secretive, vindictive and utterly unsociable, Jonathan Strange is young, happily married and popular due to his hearty ways. Mr Norrell is content casting spells from his study, while Strange is the one on the frontlines with the British soldiers as they battle Napolean's armies with brawn and magic. Mr Norrell's brand of magic shuns the Faeries, and sticks to tried and true spells in ancient texts, while Strange's magic is free form and self taught at times, which sets him leaning towards the very arts of the Faeries that are forbidden by Mr Norrell forbid.

Both men are equally stubborn and equally talented, and eventually take differing paths in life. But unbeknownst to them, mischief is being wreaked by a malevolent force right under their very noses. All things intertwine, and eventually culmulate together to wreak more havoc across England than anyone would have expected.

What I liked:
What makes this novel stand out is the way in which Clarke has woven history and fantasy together. Many historical events and characters make an appearence in this book, and readers are presented with a new twist on these actual events and people. Sort of a "what if" had magic really been commonplace in 19th century England.

Clarke's writing is very descriptive, and she is able to present readers with an engaging and entirely believable world within the pages of her book.

Another thing I particularly enjoyed about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the Britishness of the entire book. The pages drip with dry British wit, especially during the moments of dry humour, and that was what contributed greatly to my enjoyment of this book.

I must make a mention of this too. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is written in such a way that there many many footnotes contained in every chapter that provide further explaination about the topics mentioned. Rather than making my reading more tedious, I actually found that these footnotes greatly enriched my reading experience, much like how hyperlinks give blog readers more context.

Another thing I particularly liked about this book was the underlying theme of knowledge and learning. Clarke presents magic as an academic endevour, making a good part of this book sound pretty scholarly. There were times when I felt like I was reading from a textbook, but a highly interesting one at that. That's part of what gives this book a very distinct feel from all the other fantasy books out there.

What I didn't like:
If you're a fan of hard and fast fiction, this book might move a tad too slow for you, as proper action happens much less than the dialogue and descriptions do. But if you like things well fleshed out, then this won't be too much of a problem for you.

Also, principle characters don't get introduced right away. You'll have to get past a significant portion of the book before you may meet another key player in the chain of events.

There will be historical inconsistencies, but since I'm more ignorant of English history than Clarke, it's not a problem for me. I'm entertained enough and that's what a good book should be like. (The Da Vinci Code is an exception an a horribly written book; this I have to mention in case anyone dares to draw a comparision between how both authors twist history to their ends.)

If you like faerie tales (the real faerie tales and not the Disney versions), history, haunted houses, magical feats and good scholarly banter, then this book is for you.

I said that I would not publicise my blog, but I didn't say that I won't publicise another blog which technically speaking, isn't mine.

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Have Faith
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So please do visit Have Faith!