Wednesday, July 29, 2015


When I saw that a TV series based on this book was appearing on BBC America, I decided to dust off my copy and read it.  At almost 800 pages, with an overwhelming plethora of footnotes, the novel is somewhat daunting.  I soon switched to an eBook, because the book’s heft limits its portability.  I was also delighted to see that the eBook swept all those pesky footnotes to the end, so that I could ignore them without guilt.  I’ve heard this book billed as a sort of adult Harry Potter novel, and it is about magic in England.  The similarities end there.  Although I suppose they’re both cheeky in their own way, I prefer the boy wizard.  In any case, Mr. Norrell announces to a society of “theoretical” magicians, i.e., magicians who read about magic without ever performing any, that he is, in fact, a “practical” magician and reveals his talents by bringing a group of statues to life.  Soon he takes on Jonathan Strange as a pupil.  Norrell, despite having accomplished the feat of bringing a dead woman back to life, is the more conservative of the two magicians and has acquired a magnificent collection of reference books on magic, which he refuses to share with Strange or anyone else for that matter.  After Strange becomes involved with Wellington’s war efforts against Napoleon, Norrell and Strange part ways and become rivals.  Strange is flashy, fearless, and flamboyant, as he explores the legacy of the Raven King, the 12th century magician extraordinaire, whom Norrell has always made every effort to ignore, because he strives to be a “respectable” magician, whereas the Raven King was not.  The supporting characters include a couple of servants with wavering loyalties, Norrell’s foppish entourage of Drawlight and Lascelles, and two women who straddle the real world and the faerie world.  The real feat of this book is that the author is very effective at evoking the early 19th century world with her language and antiquated spelling and makes this fantasy yarn sound like historical fact.  Neither J.K. Rowling nor J.R.R. Tolkien accomplished that.  I may have laughed out loud while reading this book, maybe once every 100 pages, but I grew weary between chuckles.

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