This is another one of those recommendations that you may look at and think "Jesus, Jay, when do you think I'm going to have time to read 800 pages? I have a job," but what can I say? This feature is called "Jay Loves A Book" not "Jay Says You Can Finish This In An Afternoon If You Don't Have Anything Else To Do." I used to study Victorian Lit and I like long books, what can I say?
Both of those facts means that Strange is a double win for me, because what Clarke has done (in this, her first book) is essentially write a Victorian novel. The book tells the story of the emergence of two magicians in 19th century England. And by magicians, I don't mean guys who do magic tricks in top hats, I mean real magicians, who use magic, like wizards, only more...English.
The plot, like the plot of all good Victorian novels, is way too complicated to go into, but the basics are these: in England, most magicians only study magic, they don't perform it anymore. It's gone from something useful and real, to the object of study and speculation. Magicians belong to groups where they sit and have brandy and talk about the history of magic, instead of actually doing it. (If you know anything about the intellectual life of Victorian England and it's obsession with study and classification, this part feels very real.)
Onto this pedantic scene comes Mr Norrell, who is a practical magician. He makes the stones of the cathedral talk! He does actual spells! And he won't join with the other magicians, preferring to keep his own company.
He does, eventually, agree to take on an apprentice, Jonathan Strange, who is young and daring where Mr Norrell is cautious and secretive. Eventually, they have a falling out and all sorts of other things happen that, again, are way too complicated to go into, but are really cool and make it seem like magic really did exist in 19th century England.
It's not the plot, though, but the details that really make the book sing, for me. For example, there's a whole back story that we see only in glimpses and pieces about the founder of English magic, the Raven King. And Clarke's book is peppered with footnotes* about fictional reference works speculating on the Raven King's true nature and power. And it begins during the Napoleonic War**, so there are also actual historic personages getting involved with the main characters (because, obviously, if you were an historic personage in a war with Napoleon and had not one, but two practical magicians on your side, wouldn't you want to get them involved?). And the magic involved seems both real and frightening, like, for example, when Jonathan reanimates some Neopolitan*** corpses to question them about a French plot, he doesn't know how to un-animate them, and we get this scene:
All that summer [the Neopolitans] travelled in a bullock cart and on Lord Wellington's orders they were shackled. The shackles were intended to restrict their movements and keep them in one place, but the dead Neopolitans were not afraid of pain -- indeed they did not seem to feel it -- so it was very little trouble to them to extricate themselves from their shackles, sometimes leaving pieces of themselves behind. As soon as they were free, they would go in search of Strange and begin pleading with him to restore them to the fullness of life. They had seen Hell and were not anxious to return there.
From a letter from Lord Fitzroy Somerset to his brother, 1812: "Concerning the dead Italian soldiers I can only say that we greatly regretted such cruelty to men who had already suffered a great deal. But...they could not be persuaded to leave the magician alone....We were obliged to set two men to watch him while he slept to keep the dead men from touching him and waking him up. They had been so battered about since their deaths. They were not, poor fellows, a sight anyone wished to see upon waking. In the end we made a bonfire and threw them on it."
Look at that. Just look at it. Two paragraphs of perfect tone and perfect horror. Behind the Victorian precision of language and reserve, there are corpses shambling after you, touching you and waking you up. And, because you cannot stop them, these zombies who speak, you must throw them on a bonfire. ::shudder::
But it's not all horrible-awesome; some of it is funny-awesome, too. Take this scene, for example, from when Strange first animates the corpses:
Then one by one the corpses revived and began to speak in a guttural language which contained a much higher proportion of screams than any language known to the onlookers.
"Dear God!" cried Fitzroy Somerset, "What language is that?"
"I believe it is one of the dialects of Hell," said Strange.
"Is it indeed?" said Somerset. "Well, that is remarkable."
"They have learnt it very quickly," said Lord Wellington, "They have only been dead three days." He approved of people doing things promptly and in a businesslike fashion.
Yes, because when you re-animate a corpse, the impressive part is how quickly it has picked up the dialects of HELL. I love the English. And I love Susanna Clarke.
In addition to magic and zombies and dry-humored English lords, there is also a very pretty and sad love story, and an evil faerie (yes, there are faeries, but not the kinds you may be used to), and political scheming and professional jealousies and, basically, everything you could want in 800 pages delivered with fantastic language and charming style.
True fact: I put off reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for months after it came out because I was worried that it would be too good and I would be overcome with jealousy. Both of those things are true.
* I know, what's with me and footnotes, right? But Clarke isn't Wallace--there are just a few footnotes here and there, and they're not very long.
**Those historians among you are now saying "GOTCHA, Jay! The Napoleonic Wars only lasted until 1815, and Queen Victoria didn't take the throne until 1837, so how could this book be a Victorian novel, hmm?" To which I say (a) you have too much time on your hands, and (b) the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars were common themes of Victorian literature (see, e.g., Vanity Fair by Thackeray) because of the seriousness of the conflict and the profound effect on England (i.e., the rise of the British Empire to preeminence in the world) and (c) no, seriously, get a hobby or something. :)
***From Naples, not the tri-flavored ice cream.