Book review: “Jonathan Strange and Dr Morrell” by Susanna Clarke

“Magic is returning to England. Strange has found a way to bring it back.”

This book took me an age to read, I began on 1 August 2018 and finished it yesterday (October 28, 2019). It was just so long (1006 pages) and so slow paced. The updates I posted on Goodreads of my progress couldn’t all fit on one page.

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Updates on Goodreads for the first 70% of the book

Set in the Regency Period, this is a story of English magicians, particularly the two of the title. If you are expecting a Hogwart’s for grown-ups you will be disappointed. Clarke has clearly read many Victorian and Regency writers and has the literary nous, but J K Rowling is much better at drawing you into her fantasy world created with characters who you really care about. We begin with Mr Gilbert Norrell, a keen collector of books on magic, who sees himself as the only practical magician in England, the others like those of The Learned Society of York Magicians are merely theoretical magicians. He impresses government ministers when, with the aid of a villainous gentleman with thistledown hair from the land of Faerie, he manages to bring an influential politician’s newly deceased fiancée back to life. He is then employed to contribute to the war effort against the French and he manages to create an illusory fleet out of rain to keep the French ships blockaded in their ports.
The book, I feel could have done with a good editor, it is incredibly long weighing in at over 1000 pages, there are flashes of brilliance but it is a long slog from beginning to end. We have to plough through a quarter of the book until we meet the second character from the title, Jonathan Strange, a second practical magician, who seems more of a natural at magic than the more scholarly Norrell. This book has copious footnotes, unusual in a work of fiction, relating often to fictitious tomes on English magic. There are also a few pencil drawn illustrations to give the book that 19th century look.

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Illustration by Portia Rosenberg and footnote

The language is a kind of faux-Victorian with archaic spellings sprinkled liberally throughout the text like “chuse” and “shewed”. Some of the characters names like Drawlight, Childermass and Honeyfoot seem to have walked straight out of a Dickensian novel. Real historic characters like the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron enter the story but do little to enhance the story. The characters are rather dry and chaste, the reader doesn’t get emotionally attached to them.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
that is one thick book…

My rating : three out of five

 

“A Clash of Kings” by George R R Martin (Book Review)

A Clash of Kings” is a weighty tome and the second in the series “A Song of Ice and Fire“. My copy runs to page 1009, but this includes almost 40 pages of appendices, which I rarely used. The appendices list the various houses and have some maps.

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A Clash of Kings

The first book in the series is “Game of Thrones“, which I haven’t yet read, I haven’t read it because I couldn’t find it in the Tbilisi bookshops. This is quite common, the bookstores here, stock books from a series but often don’t have the first, maybe someone beat me to it. Paranassus has all the sequels to A Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but not the first book, Prospero’s has Brave New World Revisited but not Brave New World and when I was looking for Game of Thrones in Biblus; I found the second, third and fourth books of the series but not the first.  As I have watched the HBO TV series, this wasn’t such a problem, I had a good idea of the story. I don’t usually read a book after watching a film or TV series, but this was an exception. I love the TV series and eagerly anticipate the final season. Reading this book “A Clash of Kings” may have been a means to satisfy my Westeros withdrawal cravings.

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Robb Stark “The King in the North” in the HBO Series

Each chapter looks at the story from the point of view of a particular character : Sansa, Tyrion, Jon, Arya and even Davos. The title “A Clash of Kings” suggests a lot of kings and a lot of political intrigue, the chapters for Tyrion are particularly interesting in this respect.

Tyrion observes: “My most trusted advisers are a eunuch and a sellsword, and my lady’s a whore. What does that say of me?” (p632)

If you are unfamiliar with the whole Game of Thrones/The Song of Ice and Fire phenomenon, it details a fantasy world, where we learn about two continents Westeros and Essos. In Westeros there are many contenders for the right to rule the lands from the Iron Throne in King’s Landing, the capital. The Game is about how the different factions play against each other with the goal of becoming the ruler of the seven kingdoms of Westeros. The technology of the world is similar to that of England during the War of the Roses in the 15th century, but as this is fantasy there are added elements of magic  and dragons and a napalm like substance called “Wildfire“. The War of the Roses pitted York against Lancaster, here the principal two houses are Stark and Lannister.

In A Clash of Kings we have Joffrey, a cruel and juvenile tyrant like Edward of Lancaster,  sitting on the Iron Throne but he doesn’t control all seven kingdoms. There are Stannis and Renly, brothers of the previous king Robert, who contend their claims. In the north, there is Robb Stark, the self styled “king in the north” and over in Essos, there is Daenerys, who also has a claim on the Iron Throne and has three dragons to boot. The highlight of this second book is the Battle of Black Water which sees the forces of Stannis come to King’s Landing to fight the Lannister forces organised by Tyrion, the hand of the King.

In the book we see the Battle of Black Water from Tyrion’s viewpoint (we also have Sansa and Davos viewpoint but they see little of the overall picture), it would have been interesting to have Cersei’s viewpoint, the mother of the king, and master player in the game.

If I hadn’t seen the TV Series, this book would have been a veritable page-turner, the story is very similar, so there were no major surprises, in a way by seeing the TV Series,  I’d spoilt it for myself. The book does give a lot more detail on the motivations of certain characters. Some of the characters like Jon, Daenerys, Sansa and Arya are much younger in the books than in the TV Series. I have the third book in the series on my reading shelf: “A Storm of Swords” (1128 pages before the appendices!), many fans rate this one as the best. We shall see.

My rating : 4 out of 5