Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Unlike Scot, I love novels.  In fact, one of the challenges of my life is that, as a blogger and non-fiction writer, I am plied with non-fiction books that publishers and authors wish me to read, endorse, and review.  While that is a great honor, and I’m usually happy to oblige, I much prefer to read fiction, and how I wish that I were sent novels to review.

So last January, feeling flush with a little Christmas cash, I ordered a few novels from Amazon.  I picked them by surveying several “best novels of the new millennium” lists and chose the books that seemed to come up with regularity, and the first I dove into was Susanna Clark’s masterpiece, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.  Half-a-year and 845 pages later, I finished it last night.

It is said that what differentiates good from great in a fantasy or science fiction novel is the author’s ability to create a world that is wholly believable and self-contained.  This, for instance, is the brilliance of JRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.  (CS Lewis who, like the Beatles, is overrated, did an admirable job of the same in Narnia.)

Clark’s task is not as daunting as Tolkien’s, for she is writing historical-fiction-fantasy — the novel is set in 19th-century England and Europe, amidst the Napoleonic Wars — yet the challenge is steep nonetheless, for she must weave together that well-known history and culture with a fabricated history and practice of English magic.  That she’s able to do it with such aplomb literally left me shaking my head at several points.

The title characters are superbly drawn, leading me to hope that this novel will never be turned into a movie, for there is so much subtlety to their personalities, and my affections toward each of them rose and fell so many times, that a 3-act movie would be a supreme injustice to the Clark’s development of them.

This novel has no great moral, so in this sense, it is unlike Tolkien or Lewis or Asimov or Lawhead or LeGuin (among my other favored fantasy and science fiction authors).  But that actually made it a great summer read.  While there are moral struggles, this is a novel about manners, lack thereof, and breathtaking character development.

If you like novels, I’m guessing you’ll love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

  • Chris

    “CS Lewis who, like the Beatles, is overrated”

    Wow, you just had to light that match and throw it out there didn’t you? Ever the provocateur (sp.?).

    Forget CS Lewis for a minute. The Beatles, overrated? In what possible sense? You really should have added IMO, because I don’t know of any credible source with even a modicum of musical perceptiveness and historical perspective who would agree. Only the snobbiest of snobs who take delight in shunning the pedestrian crowd for the sake of looking down I would imagine.

  • http://satellitesaint.blogspot.com/ Tucker

    Beatles? Overrated?? I pull out my glove and hit you across the cheek. Both cheeks. There, take that! Hmph!

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  • Jim

    As much as I disagree with your taste on the Beatles and Lewis, Strange and Norrell is a wonderful book. Good recommendation.

  • Alex

    Do you ever read Dave Eggers? He is my current favorite author. Out of curiosity, do you think reading too much non-fiction can quench creativity? Eugene Peterson said everyone should read more fiction.

    • http://twitter.com/diecast David

      Love Eggers. “What is the What” and “Zeitoun” were both so magnificently written.

  • http://www.markvans.info Mark Van Steenwyk

    I didn’t know you like speculative fiction/fantasy/scifi, Tony! I’m glad to hear it. And we seem to have similar tastes. I really enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It is almost perfect for what it is–an enjoyable, well-spun, story with compelling characters. It isn’t super deep. But sometimes deep gets a little old. When I want deep, I read Le Guin (who is in my top five). Lately, I’ve really been getting into Gene Wolfe–who is science fiction’s Dostoevsky (you should seriously check him out). Fiction stirs my intellect and imagination WAY more than the vast majority of non-fiction I read.

  • http://satellitesaint.blogspot.com/ Tucker

    Mark, thanks for the tip on Gene Wolfe (though you gave the tip to Tony, I was lurking). His work looks fascinating.

  • http://missional.ca Jamie Arpin-Ricci

    Tony, you should really consider “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell. It is an unexpectedly powerful book in the sci fi genre. I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

    As for C.S. Lewis, I think he is overrated relative to the near worshipful fan-ship of many, which doesn’t discredit his very important contribution, but at least attempts to remove him from the unofficial list of Christ’s apostles!

  • Tony Jones

    Alex, I started AHWOSG today! Breathtaking so far.

    Others: please keep the suggestions coming!

  • Jim

    Have you ever read any Neil Gaiman, Tony? I think his longer works are not his best, but “Stardust” is a beautiful little story (if you can find the illustrated version and skip the movie), and “The Graveyard Book” is quite fun.

    I mention him because he and Susannah Clark are friends. Clark wrote a short stories set in Gaiman’s “Stardust” world.

    Guy Gavriel Kay writes fantasy novels with strongly drawn characters. Often they’re “historical” fantasy, set in alternate, fantastic locations like “Sarantium.” I recommend him highly.

    As for Lewis, I’d agree with you if you’re talking of Mere Christianity. But “Till We Have Faces” is by no means overrated, and “An Experiment in Criticism” is one of the critical gems of the century.

  • Dave

    I was captivated by Tolkein’s lesser known work the Gunslinger, if you have not read this quick read yet.

    http://dauntlessmedia.net/the-dark-tower/the-gunslinger-book-review.html

    This was when I was much younger and would want to read it again if find it… Thanks for bringing back the memory.

    Dave

  • http://www.alexgamble.blogspot.com Alex

    All of Egger’s books are phenomenal, but his latest two are masterful. Check out Zeitoun and The Wild Things.

  • http://www.alexgamble.blogspot.com Alex

    Oh, and his What Is The What is also a best book of the decade. He singlehandedly changed fiction.

  • Jeff Rensch

    p.s Gene Wolfe is Roman Catholic and it’s a great exercise finding the Catholicity powering his pagan plots and themes. A deep and rich writer.

  • http://www.tomandtheresa.com Tom Parks

    If you haven’t read David James Duncan’s ‘The Brothers K’ I’d highly recommend it. It’s a moving, detailed and creative development of a family’s change, separation and redemptive love for one another through a changing America from the 1950′s – 70′s. The story is told in an original way through the lens of religious discovery and idealism, a vast knowledge and piety for baseball, war and personal discovery of four brothers. I’ll bring it to the Porch if you’re interested

  • http://www.astatum.net Andrew

    I’m not sure how into “historical fiction” you are but I recently finished the audio versions of Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett and loved them both (although Pillars was my favorite). I’d also recommend (though I’m thinking you’ve already read it) The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Another, more recent, novel (also one of my favorites) is Culum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. I’ve found that I can read and enjoy fiction much more easily in audio format. Not sure what other avid fiction readers might think of this medium but I’ve “read” (listened to) more novels in the past year (sixteen at my last count) than I have in the previous five and my appetite for good fiction continues to grow as a result!

  • http://dariusteichroew.blogspot.com Darius
  • http://existentialpunk.com Existential Punk

    i recommend Haruki Murakami. Japanese writer who is excellent and very interesting.


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