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.