A Little Less Than Strange: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004)
Written by: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Pages: 866 (Kindle)
Publisher: Bloomsbury (UK)/Tor (US)

Why I Chose It: This book was my Resolution Project 2017 goal for Speculative Chic. Long story short: I picked up the gigantic hardback edition in 2005, and it’s been anchoring my To Be Read pile ever since. Finally bought the ebook to give it a proper shot.

The Premise:

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England’s history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England — until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.

Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell’s student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.

Spoiler free!

Discussion: Honestly, the reason this review is spoiler free is because I gave up on this book when my Kindle said 25% at the bottom.

This is definitely one of those incredibly subjective situations where the story simply wasn’t for me. The funny thing is that the story should have absolutely appealed to me. I’m a sucker for what is essentially urban fantasy set in an historical time frame. And as a work of historical fiction, Clarke hits it out of the park. London of the early 19th century was brought to life in my mind’s eye.

Unfortunately, that stunning imagery lost a war with brevity. Considering the length of this work, I’d already read the equivalent of a shorter novel by the time I turned off my Kindle and set it aside. And while events and story had certainly occurred, I had no idea what the overarching plot might be, or where it might be going.

In fact, I’d only just been introduced to the character of Jonathan Strange. The entire first quarter of the book is dedicated to Mr. Norrell, and while he is a unique character, he is not particularly interesting. He is certainly not likable (honestly, he’s kind of a dick). When Jonathan Strange did not instantly grab me either, I knew I wasn’t going to find out how the two men met, much less where things might go from there.

Don’t get me wrong: I know this book won the Hugo and Nebula for Best Novel (among other awards) in 2005 for a reason. And while I might not have been drawn to the story, I fully recognize that the writing itself is absolutely gorgeous.

The endless imagery is just part of the period writing style that Clarke mimics flawlessly, up to and including certain spelling choices that must have been painstakingly researched. As a former English major, I genuinely felt like I was reading an historical novel instead of one crafted to imitate the the style. It’s brilliant.

There are, of course, downsides to this level of mimicry. Even as a modern reader used to plowing through this style, I was still very aware that this is a modern-day book. Therefore, the attempts at diversity made by the author fell flat to me, when the diverse characters are described and exclaimed upon by the insertive authorial voice that flowed naturally elsewhere.

In conclusion: Exquisitely written in a familiar historical style, but the length, unsympathetic characters, and lack of plot momentum did not grab this reader. I even tried to watch the BBC miniseries once I’d set it aside, hoping that I might enjoy the story better through a different medium. The first episode made it approximately through the section of novel that I’d read, and then I realized that I didn’t actually care that much. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an appreciation for fine writing and a lot more patience than I appear to possess.


  • Shara White August 16, 2017 at 7:13 am

    Great review. I didn’t try reading this on a Kindle, but it sounds like you had the same problems I did. I stopped on page 224/846 of my trade paperback copy. My original review from 2011 is here (and no where near as eloquent as this!): http://calico-reaction.livejournal.com/271899.html

  • Weasel of Doom August 16, 2017 at 11:09 am

    I DNF’ed it, too. And did not get nearly as far into it as you two ladies did 🙂 Oh well, you win some, you lose some…

  • Lane Robins August 16, 2017 at 11:49 am

    Ha. I really loved this, but I can’t tell you why. I think it was all the things you disliked about it. So very very dry, and yet…. I really liked the way huge magic was happening in such an understated way. There’s a point where the english government gets a “stiff note” from the countries their army is marching through (Spain, I believe) because Strange wasn’t putting the rivers back after he moved them out of the army’s way.

    On the other hand, I’m still kind of bitter that we never really got more about the Raven King.

    I wonder if her short stories would be more to your tastes. The Ladies of Grace Adieu.

    • J.L. Gribble August 17, 2017 at 8:15 am

      And I loved the boats made out of rain! But that cool moment was so buried in what felt like a lot of nothing going on (and I was distracted by the super-obnoxious descriptions of one of the characters in that section regardless of how historically “accurate” such a description would have been).

  • Nancy O'Toole Meservier August 20, 2017 at 11:43 am

    Yep. This book falls under the category of “one of Nancy’s favorite books of all time” but I 100% understand why it’s not to everyone’s taste. The mammoth page count (and cast size), plus the time it takes for the story to unfold, makes it almost as inaccessible as it is awesome. I ended up listening to the audio version during a period of time when I had close to four hours of commuting, five days a week, for a month straight. I think the fact that I was in a unique position to fully immerse myself into the story made the book far more accessible to me then the average reader.

  • davidbrawley August 21, 2017 at 9:59 pm

    I’m pretty sure the only reason I made it through the whole book was because I listened to it in the car. And as it was the only book I’d taken out of the library, I was kind of stuck with it… so I stuck with it.

    If there’s ever a readers digest version, I’d recommend it.


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