Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004): One of the staples of historical fantasy and science fiction is the "changed premise" alternate history, in which one difference gives us a new Earth to ponder. Clarke's award-winning first novel gives us that changed premise in an England where magic works, fairies are real, and Northern England was ruled for hundreds of years by John Uskglass, the Raven King.

But as we advance through the years covered by the novel -- 1806-1817 -- we discover a curious thing. History has pretty much progressed, and continues to progress, exactly as it did in our world. To note the biggest example of this, the Napoleonic Wars play out exactly as they did in our world, despite Great Britain and its allies having the services of two powerful magicians. Is this an imaginative failing on the part of the novel? Well, yes. It's hard to believe in magic when it seems to be zero-sum.

I can see why a lot of people -- and perhaps more non-fantasy readers than fantasy readers -- praised the novel. It's a triumph of pastiche and multiple stylistic homages to writers that include Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. But it's also thin as spring ice. After a 1000 pages, most characters still possess only a few defining characteristics. The two main characters -- Strange and Norrell, England's first two practicing magicians in a couple of centuries -- are defined by arrogance and fear, respectively, and little else.

Many of the supporting characters fall into one of two camps: the thinly drawn sympathetic and the pseudo-Dickensian grotesque. But our sympathies for the most ill-served-by-events character in the novel must develop entirely from the situation she's placed in: she has no actual personality traits that aren't reactions to her situation. Another character is pretty much entirely defined by being nice and slightly worried. With 1000 pages to work with, Clarke perhaps could have given us more, though the book did need room for all the pseudo-scholarly footnotes on the history of English magic. Actually, many of the footnotes are more magical and interesting than the primary text.

And oh, that mannered style. Arch and distancing, it renders much of the text droll and occasionally cutting, but it also makes sympathy for the characters difficult. The archness of style and the thinness of the characters don't mix well with the epic scope of the novel. And for the main plot to proceed, several supposedly smart characters have to be unsatisfyingly stupid and dense for a very, very, very long time (ten years and several hundred pages).

But anyway, there's magic. It comes back from somewhere. Two Englishmen, the exceedingly bookish Mr. Norrell and the more public Mr. Strange, learn how to use it. Strange helps with the Napoleonic Wars in Europe; Norrell helps with the defense of England. The true plot grows from Norrell's second work of public magic, the one that established him as a magician to be reckoned with in polite society in London. The lesson to be learned: Don't trust fairies.

I'm glad I read the novel, though I can't say I ever want to read another one by Clarke. The racial and gender critiques in the novel are about as thuddingly obvious as they come. The fantastic universe itself makes very little sense: how did magic change absolutely nothing about the history of England? Because the novel needs everything to be the same for its pastiche elements to work properly, I suppose is the only answer. And a real 'What if?' novel might scare away a lot of the paying customers, the ones who like Jane Austen but can't tell a hobbit from a hat-pin.

There are weird historical miscues (Clarke seems to be unaware that a height of 5'9" wouldn't make a man seem tiny in 1816, given that it would actually be above average height). And there really isn't an ending so much as a stoppage in play. The pay-offs to two of the main plot-threads are so muted as to almost be non-existent, while a third becomes a culmination of a deus ex machina that removes much of the agency from Strange and Norrell themselves. There's certainly room for a sequel. I'm sure it will be long. Lightly recommended.

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