Revisiting "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" - Book Review

I first read Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in 2014. When I saw the brilliant BBC TV mini-series of the same name in mid-2016, I decided I needed to re-read the book. It's a 780 page trade paperback, and glacially paced. This isn't what you'd call "a light read" in either the physical or the mental sense. This second read took me about six months at a few pages a day. But I loved every minute of it.

The basic premise finds us in 1806 England. Three centuries ago, magic stopped working. Now a group of theoretical magicians (the only kind left) finds themselves facing down a Mr. Norrell, who claims to be able to do practical magic. They don't believe him, but they lose their bet. We're then introduced to Jonathan Strange, a gentleman who rather randomly chooses magic as a profession ... and is remarkably good at it, despite being unable to find more than a couple textbooks - because Mr. Norrell has carefully and deliberately bought up and made inaccessible every book of magic in the country.

As the book proceeds, Norrell brings a woman back from the dead, Strange gets married, Britain goes to war with Napoleon, Strange goes to war ... Plenty happens, but the tension doesn't really ramp up until the last 150 pages. Most people find the book far too slow to ever read. And I get that. But ... they're really missing something. A friend of mine managed to articulate at least a part of the reason the book is such a treat to read: many, MANY people have attempted to emulate the writing of the early to mid-1800s. It's the time of Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and Charles Dickens ... so it must be quaint, charming, and awesome. But prior to Susanna Clarke very few even came close to the writing style of any of those authors, as much as they tried. Clarke didn't just come close: she completely nailed it. It seemed effortless (although undoubtedly it was not). The writing and world-building are exquisite: fantasy writing doesn't get any better than this. It a may be a struggle to read, but believe me - it's absolutely worth it. One of my top three fantasy novels of all time.