Holy Thistlehair, I finally finished this book. It is a LOOOONG book. I can’t find the number of pages, but on my kindle, which counts locations, not pages, it was 14,498 locations. So it has got to be something like 700 – 900 pages. Most of them tedious. OK, not exactly tedious but less interesting than you might think, considering that the book is all about magic, alternate history including the Napoleonic War, fairies, and some potentially interesting characters.
Let’s start with the good stuff, before moving on to why, other than its excessive length, I didn’t fall in love with it.
First of all, it won an embarrassing number of awards: Time’s Best Novel of the Year 2004, Hugo Award for Best Novel 2005, World Fantasy Award for Best Novel 2005, Locus Award for Best First Novel 2005,
Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature 2005, and the British Book Awards Newcomer of the Year Award 2005. Plus it was shortlisted or nominated for another five awards. So I was wondering whether the criterion for these awards is based on word count.
But I stray. Set in the late 1800’s, the basic plot is about the gradual disappearance from Jolly Old England of magic. There used to be plenty of magic in England, back in the early days of the land. A child, stolen by the fairies and raised in Faerie, returned to England to take revenge. After the battle he took over the northern part, and the English king got the southern part. One day the faerie king, known as the Raven King, disappeared, seemingly taking the magic with him.
Cut to the late 1800s. Mr. Norrell, with his home in the northern part once belonging to the Faerie king, is determined to bring magic back to England. He scoops up all the books on magic that exist in the land for his private library. He goes to London to try to influence the power people, and takes on an eager apprentice, Jonathan Strange. They work all kinds of fabulous magic together, and the government hires them to help out with spells so they can win the war against Napoleon and the French. One of the power people, Lord Poole, is set to marry a lovely young lady, who dies three days before the wedding. He calls on Mr. Norrell to bring her back to life. Mr. Norrell does this with the aid of a malicious faerie, who extracts a terrible fee for his help. He forces the young woman to come with him to his enchanted home and dance the night away, … every night. She loses her vitality and beauty, and joy in life.
So we learn that fairies are mean,nasty, vengeful, cruel and heartless. Not the pretty little things we have on greeting cards today.
Then Jonathan Strange and Norrell have a falling out, after which his wife is also taken by that faerie, but it seems that she has died. And the rest of the book is pretty much about the struggle between the two magicians and against that faerie guy.
Lots of action, lots of subplots, lots of crazy spells, and frankly, it should have been more of a page turner than it was. But I found it to be a drag. I don’t know if I didn’t care for the story telling, or just what, but I am sure I would have been more delighted if it were half its length.
I went to Wikipedia to find out what I was missing. Well. Turns out that the book has all kinds of aspects to it which are a lot more interesting to read about than the book itself. Like the the novel’s 185 footnotes, which document a meticulous invented history of English magic. At times, the footnotes dominate entire pages of the novel, and in which the anonymous narrator provides elaborate mini-essays, relating anecdotes from the lives of semi-legendary magicians, describing strange books and their contents, speculating upon the early years and later fate of the Raven King. This is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, particularly as Clarke’s notes humorously refer to previous notes in the novel.
Some think the book is about friendship, the dynamic between Strange and Norrell. OK. [Rolling eyes.] Well, there was some dynamic going on there. There IS an interesting dynamic between reason and madness. There is even mad King whatisname in the book. Remember, this IS Alternate History or Historical Fiction. There are a lot of other lofty words about the ‘voice’ and suppression of others, and if you want to read about it, you can swing on over to Wikipedia’s entry on it. As I said, it makes for interesting reading.
So, that was a kabillion reading hours of my life that I will never get back. Oh, dear. That sounds so churlish of me.