I almost don’t want to review this book because I feel like I need to read it again to do it justice. Part of this is because my sister told me she enjoyed it the most the third time she read it. I also listened to it (since the end of Anna, this has been my commute-audiobook) and this is a rare book I don’t think works as well in audio form the first time.
The biggest reason for this “don’t listen to it first” comes from two things. There is a prophecy which is only actually given in it’s complete form once. And in a very active scene. And it sounds like gibberish for another 100 pages. The book also has a lot of footnotes, which I think the audio book did an excellent job of incorporating, but the footnotes are wordy and at times distracting from the overall novel. Lastly, I went into this book with high expectations because so many people have recommended it over the years as an amazing fantasy novel (borderline urban fantasy). It is hard for books to live up to that kind of expectation and as much as I tried to separate myself from those expectations, especially early in the book I was going “why do people love this so much…?”
Ok, with my reservations about this review out of the way let me begin with the characters. It takes a long time to introduce Mr. Gilbert Norrell and even longer to get to Jonathan Strange. This is clearly by design, and it does suit the style the novel is written in (that circuitous style of Austen, Bronte, or Dickens in the mid-1800s). I don’t feel like Norrell grew as much as Strange. I certainly perceived Strange as having a more distinct character arc, versus Norrell who has really only a single shift-point in the narrative and I’m not sure I feel like he made a real shift in thought or just accepted the change in circumstances. It might just be that he did something I find unforgivable and so Mr. Norrell is not a terribly likable character to me.
I also think it’s notable that Mr. Norrell is almost always Mr. Norrell, while Jonathan Strange is frequently Jonathan Strange and only referenced as “Mr. Strange” in others’ communications. I feel like there is a theme there, but I don’t know what I would call it. “Familiarizing” a character versus “Distancing” another?
So what kept me reading? The style and the world. By far the world Susanna Clarke built was interesting. The depth she had to the scholarship of magic was fun as a historian – it felt like a well-documented history of the nineteenth century. I personally would have liked to understand more of magic that WASN’T English. Napoleon was looking for a magician – did the French have their own magical history? What about Italy? They mention the “Orientals” – but that didn’t feel like middle eastern or southeast asian somehow… It still sounded like they were a branch of English magicians. But it was highly appropriate for the style of nineteenth century English novels to think England the center of the world and all other people and places something “lesser” (and everyone wanting to be English, of course). Height of Empire blah blah blah.
Would I recommend it? To the right person, yes. It is one of the few books I’ve listened to on audiobook which I would not recommend listening to first. It is an excellent narrator, but it would probably have been more enjoyable as a written book and I could skim long descriptions and skip footnotes that were not immediately pertinent. I also could have gone back throughout to look over the prophecy several times to get the details. I eventually Googled it because I felt lost. I think at least some of my “it took a long time to get into this book” was because of the interruptions of the footnotes and inability to easily go back and reference previous parts.