Thursday, February 22, 2007

I am a Friend of English Magic

“They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire”

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004)

This cover made me buy it in the first place.

I’ve put off reviewing this book for quite awhile now, having read this brilliant, brilliant work of literature more than a year ago. First off, I believe that it’s only fair to warn you that if you still think Harry Potter is da sh!t the pinnacle of modern fantasy novels, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is most certainly not for you.

To put it as simply as I’m able to, JS&MN is an alternate history fiction set in 19th century England during the Napoleonic Wars. Two rival magicians (initially in a master-and-apprentice relationship) appeared in England and both of them were prophesied to return magic back to the country. It's sort of like The Prestige, only more polite and with real sorcery.

The edition I own is a red-covered paperback (depicted above) and at 800 pages of fine print, it resembled a construction brick more than it does a novel. If I should lob it at a 3-year-old child, it would no doubt kill the kid instantly. I’ve sifted through many reviews of Susanna Clarke’s masterpiece and I found that many of them standing by the opinion that the story could have been told in less than half the pages – a view I neither share nor agree with.

Take for example the quote which I took the liberty to show you above. The style and pacing of her narrative is very much akin to a 70-year-old grandmother taking a leisurely stroll through an expansive English garden – with a voice I can only describe as “quirky” (my vocabulary is by no means up to the task of doing her more justice than this). But to her credit, her pen-work has the tendency to spring surprises onto unsuspecting readers, and to further the garden analogy – she can spring dragons onto the old lady from the flower beds.

The humour of JS&MN is executed in very much the same manner, oft coming unexpectedly at the end of lengthy, droning paragraphs with a single sentence that insistently wrings chuckles out of me.

A large part of the charm of this book comes from Ms. Clarke’s talent to simulate reality – both by the many footnotes which peppered the novel citing references to numerous fictitious scholarly writings and by her accuracy in describing 19th century England (it took her 10 years in total to research for JS&MN). Her ability to tailor realism is so absolutely 1337 that I must say, hers was the first book ever to truly creep me out by just the atmosphere and settings alone.

For some reason, even though it’s not explored deeply at length, the magical system in JS&MN struck me as almost clinically scientific. After Madam Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series, JS&MN’s magic has to be the coolest and most believable one I’ve ever read about. Any sword-and-sorcery nerd will tell you that plausibility ironically plays a huge role in making fantasy novels palatable.

Currently, JS&MN resides at the top of my list of favourite reads – and I should expect it to stay there for quite a long time to come. I am looking to sell of my old paperback copy for half the price I bought it for
(I only read it twice) and invest in a sleek, black hardcover version like this one;

Sexy ebony… Mmm...

Tell me if you’re interested and we might just be able to work something out.

Here are some links for further information;

JS&MN Official Site
JS&MN Wikipedia Article

In case you're wondering; Yeah, I have the Anatomy Spotters exam scheduled for tomorrow. Gosh, I do flirt so with disaster.

Rabid fanboy,
k0k s3n w4i


lingghezhi said...

I'm interested in lookinat d book. And a Satyanarayana. if u have. :D

k0k s3n w4i said...

You can have Satyarayana. I'd gladly sell it to you for half of what I bought it for.

JS&MN haven't quite catch on yet here in India. The movie's due to screen in a year's time (by New Line Cinema, no less)

lingghezhi said...