By Susanna Clarke.
At the beginning of this month, a coworker of mine gleefully presented me with a copy of this book to borrow. "I have five copies," he said. So clearly, the dude really loves it and loans it out to everyone he can in the office.
How did I feel about it? Well, I liked it. But it's definitely a "not for everyone" sort of book, what with the formal language and giant length and somewhat slowish plot. Not to mention that it starts out featuring one of the least pleasant characters in the book for a long time before we get to more pleasant folk (which probably doesn't help undecided folks get into the book any, I'd imagine). I didn't have a problem with it--I stayed interested all the way through--but I can easily see how some folks would not take to this at all. But I enjoyed the journey.
Here's the setup: we're an an alternate England during the Napoleonic Wars. Magic used to be a big thing in England, but it's pretty much disappeared in the last few hundred years. There used to be a fairy-raised human called "The Raven King" (also John Uskglass, "the nameless slave" and various other things) that ended up ruling part of England and fairyland and other territories, but nobody knows what happened to him. In the meantime, there are gentlemen of means who study magic theoretically, but nobody would actually be so declasse as to like, try to cast a spell or something. Teh Horror! Until one fellow who joins the York Society of Magicians, John Segundus, dares to ask why nobody actually ever does any magic. This leads to him and his pal Honeyfoot tracking down the lone practicing magician in England, a country living northerner named Gilbert Norrell.
Mr. Norrell is apparently quite loaded and has managed to buy up pretty much every single magical book he can find (and he hoards them) and taught himself to do magic. Norrell eventually proves--very effectively--that he can do magic in public with a demonstration that brings statues to life. But he requests that if he can prove it, all of the theoretical magicians have to quit being magicians forever. (Segundus refuses, smartly of him.) After that big success, Norrell decides to move to the big city and make a name for himself and get a job doing magic for the government.
However, Norrell is terminally boring, pompous, stuck up, and generally unpleasant to deal with. When he talks about magic, he bores the shit out of people. Even though he acquires two fame-hungry hangers-on/"friends" to try to grease the path, it's not going well. Until one of his well-connected targets, Sir Walter Pole, has his rich fiancee die before the wedding. Norrell makes a deal with a fairy to bring her back to life. The fairy (referred to in the book as "the gentleman with the thistle-down hair," I'm just gonna call him Thistledown for the rest of this review) originally wants to help Norrell with his magic, but Norrell scorns fairies and won't go for it. Instead, the deal they make means that the fairy ends up with the lady's left pinky finger, and half of her life. Norrell figures this means that the lady will die young, but he doesn't give a shit as long as Sir Walter gets to marry her for her money. That, however, is not how Thistledown interprets it. The future Lady Pole is brought back to life, everyone is impressed, Sir Walter hooks Norrell up with the government, and all goes well for the men! Meanwhile, every night Lady Pole is swept off to Thistledown's fairy kingdom of Lost-hope, where there's balls and dancing every night. Lady Pole eventually becomes super depressed.
Sir Walter Pole's faithful black servant, Stephen Black, is also enchanted. Thistledown takes a real shine to him (and pretty much acts like his best friend) and insists that Stephen, also a "nameless slave," will one day be king of a country. He also sweeps Stephen off to fairyland every night and gives him tons of fairy treasures and nice things--and Stephen is also quite miserable, but can't do anything or say anything to anyone about it. Awkward. It rapidly becomes clear in this book that Thistledown is the real enemy, especially since after his encounter with Norrell he decides he hates all English magicians by default.
A strange fellow named Vinculis has a prediction: about a nameless slave/king and the two magicians of England, who will apparently run into some difficulties. But who's the other magician and why isn't he in this story yet? Well, Jonathan Strange is a personable fellow who had no idea about the whole magic thing until he ran across Vinculis. Looking for some kind of business to take up to impress his future wife, he takes up magic. And despite having no books to learn off of, he's a natural. Strange obviously needs a mentor, and hooks up with Norrell. Strange is one of the few (if only) people that Norrell likes...for awhile. He'll even lend Strange a few books...grudgingly and under duress...but Norrell likes to insist on everything magical being done HIS way. Except for going off to war--he's all too happy to stay at home and let Strange use his magic in the war. Very effectively too, even if some towns and forests and the like get moved around.
But eventually, the two men split up due to philosophical differences. Norrell hates the Raven King and all faerie magic, but Strange thinks it's stupid to ignore the Raven King's contributions to magic and would like to work with faeries himself. So Strange starts resorting to interesting magical experiments to try to get in touch with faeries. Little does he know that Thistledown is watching the whole thing and laughing at his ass--and stealing his wife away into enchantment as well. After that, Strange starts to get even more creative with his work...and when it starts to pay off, he finds out what's happened. Time for a whopping magical showdown...
I did enjoy this book. The author does a certain level of historical snark very well, and puts in a lot of entertaining/explaining/just telling you this story for fun footnotes to boot. Even though Norrell is deliberately unpleasant, after awhile the author mostly focuses on the more pleasant Strange and Stephen Black, so it's less of an issue if you can stand to get through the Norrell-only chapters. Thistledown continues to amaze me with his heartless cruelty even when he cares about someone (in his warped way). Strange's journey in particular is an interesting ride, especially towards the end. And while as a feminist, I wish women had more of a prominent role--obviously in this world, they're all going to be pawns one way or another and what can you do. Sigh. I did like Arabella, what you see of her, and ditto Lady Pole. I'm not sure what to make of the ending either--I was happy with a lot of how it came out, but the fate of the two magicians themselves is...odd and confusing. I wasn't sure what I should think of it.
Overall, I liked it and give it four stars. But there's definite caveats of length and style that make this one not for everyone. If you can deal with that, then you'll probably enjoy this.