Johnathan Strange and Mr Norrell
By Susannah Clarke
In1806 The Learned Society of York Magicians, who believe that magic died out several hundred years earlier are in session. Declining only in theory, they believe all Magic is disappeared from England, they learn of Mr Gilbert Norrell, who owns a large collection of "books of magic", which he has spent years purchasing to keep them out of the hands of others. Norrell proves his skill as a practical magician by making the statues at York Minster speak.
This sudden notoriety leads to the resurgence of Magic in the land,and a rich plot that encompasses a myriad of adventures with necromancy, Fairy Kings, magical kidnappings,The Napoleonic war, rivalry, chivalry and Romance.
This is a sumptuous story, a rich Tapestry that marries a story of manners and romance in the Napoleonic Wars, Strange is a wayward should before magic finds him. His courtship and then devoted marriage to his loyal and kind wife is a book in itself.
Norrell is arrogant and deeply flawed but a reluctant hero lurks beneath his surly exterior and by Story's end you kind of adore him.
Even the nefarious villain of the piece is oddly alluring, at once we are drawn to and revolted by his magnetism as his machinations manipulate and torture.
The style is lyrical and beautifully crafted in a style that seamlessly marries a gloriously complex fairy tale into a book set in a time of history much written about in more sedate literature, where the war with Bonaparte was all that was talked about in drawing rooms across England. The story addresses so much more than it first appears, ideas of slavery, female subjugation in marriage and fear of change, Magic a fine symbol of industrialism during the same period.
It is obvious that even if all of it did not make it into this first book, that so much myth and legend was created as a foundation for the specific plot line here. The legends and tales contained within work well in isolation, but within this whole are tremendously effective.
The characters are some of the most well established and rounded I have ever read and there is quite a number of them here, each with major part to play in the story, each creating catalysts that drive the story forward.
All the while the Magic is encompassed within a story of love, friendship and heroicism that is moving and rich, a clever concoction that makes you laugh cry and wonder in equal measure.
Why is it in my top twenty?
The sheer denseness of the ideas behind the central Magic is so cleverly woven and planned and the characters are all so beautifully drawn that you cannot help but be drawn in and held prisoner by the tale until it's cataclysmic finale!