Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, written by Susanna Clarke, read by Simon Prebble.
I have just now finshed the listening to the twenty-sixth and final disc of this series, and would have gladly listened to another twenty-six had I been presented with the opportunity. This book combined the magical and the ordinary even more convincingly than Gaiman’s [Neverwhere].
The book’s setting is primarily in early 1800′s England, with occassional forays into Spain for scenes of the Napoleonic War, Italy for scenes of Venice. The world of Fairy intertwines itself with England, becoming part of England, and in the end, England becomes even more intertwined back into Fairy. The book does a superlative job of weaving the fantastic story into a realistic and recognizable England. The Duke of Wellington makes the leap from the pages of history into the book, making for a highly entertaining character who makes the whole story of two men attempting to restore the lost art of Magic to England.
The magicians in the book live in a time when magic has seemed to have left England. The only magicians left are “theoretical magicians”. Theoretical magicians study the art, but don’t actually attempt to perform any deeds of magic. The two central characters to the book are magicians who are practical magicians, those who actually mutter incantations and cast spells. Other than being the only two practical magicians in the world, they are as different from each other as possible.
Norrell is the small, dusty, academic old man who has learnt his magic through a lifetime collection and study of magical books. He is given to long dull speeches on various aspects of magic. Jonathan Strange, on the other had, is a idle playboy nobleman who stumbles into magic by fate or accident, only to find he has great natural talent.
The story would not be half as rich if it were not for the small galaxy of characters swept up in the events surround the evolution of Norrell and Strange’s relationship from master and pupil to rivals and beyond. Besides the already mentioned Duke of Wellington, this supporting cast of characters include the mad King of England, a pair of villians, a women raised from the dead, a comically wicked fairy, a mysterious servant named Childemass, a vagabond street fortune teller, Lord Byron, and a delightful black manservant, Stephen Black. Black all but steals the show from the the main protagonists as the solid responsible manservant who is thrust into situations beyond his comprehesion or control.
The story moves along in a mostly unhurried fashion. For most of the book, this pace fits the story perfectly. In spots, one is reminded of the chapters in Moby Dick where Melville expounds at length on some facet of whales or the whaling life. This is a very dense book- the print edition is apparently overflowing with copious footnotes, though perhaps not quite the length and breadth of those found in the [Illuminatus! trilogy]. Surprisingly, this does not present any obstacles in the audio version of this book. In retrospect, it is probably more pleasing and less disrupting hearing the footnotes read aloud than it is to actually divert one’s eye to the bottom of the page to read the footnote and then scan back up the page to find one’s place and continue reading.
The end of the book leaves one with both a mild sense of despair and hope. Despair because the whole story isn’t yet told, even though it can be argued that all of the most urgent issues are resolved. This same despair can be turned inside out to reveal hope that there is more of this magic-soaked world forthcoming in future books. The author seems to suggest that just such a thing is possible, though she doesn’t tip her hand on particulars.
Highly recommended (audio)book. The audio facet of this book was flawless. The reader, Simon Prebble, made the characters come alive in a most convincing manner. His peformance was so good that I would be tempted to try another author’s audiobook based on nothing more than Prebble was the reader. I would be most interested in hearing people’s opinions who have read the print version of the book. Those looking for more can surf over to [jonathanstrange.com]. Author interviews, multimedia clips, are available. The bonus material was a nice touch to perpetuating the world of the English magicians.