Archive for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

sorcerer to the Crown [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2019 by xi'an

Sorcerer to the Crown is an historical fantasy book by Zen Cho I got into buying by reading a review linking most positively the novel to the monumental Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Obviously I should have known better, given that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was several years in the making, with both a very convincing reconstitution of a 19th Century style and a fairly deep plot with fantastic historical connections that took me several reads (and the help of the BBC rendering) to completely understand. Nothing of the sort with this first book in the series, except for the acknowledged influence of Susanna Clarke’s novel. I started reading Sorcerer to the Crown wondering whether this was the young adult version of the other book, the parallel being almost obvious, from the decline of English magic to the Fairy Land accessible from a shrinking number of places, to the inhumanity (or rather a-humanity) of the King of the Fairies, to the old men ruling the magician society by being adverse to any sort of innovation. The attempts at differentiating the story from this illustrious predecessor are somewhat heavy-handed as the author tackles all at once race (the two main characters are African and Indian, respectively, and face discrimination, albeit far from the extent they would have been subjected to in the actual late 1700’s England), gender (magic is repressed in girls from the upper classes), class (see previous!), politics (the British Crown would like very much the help of magicians in fighting Napoléon), imperialism (as British links with India and Malaysia are shown to support local rulers towards gaining hold in these countries).  Once more, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell addresses these issues more subtly from Stephen Black‘s significant role in the story, to the equally major impact of Arabella Strange in the unraveling of her husband greatness, to the contributions of Jonathan Strange to the Napoleonic wars… This however made for a light travel read that I completed within a few days. Enjoying the dialogues more than the [rather uni-dimensional] characters and the low-intensity action scenes.

rather dull, if rother weird… [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2018 by xi'an

A book that I grabbed in Waterstones, Brussels, on a quick dash between two meetings. And which presumably attracted me because of the superficial [watery] similarity with the book series Rivers of London, which setting and style I like quite a lot. Or, one can always dream on, a light version of Jonathan Strange & Mr. NorrellRotherweird is the first book in a trilogy by Andrew Caldecott, taking place in a sort of time space hole in (very) rural England, the river Rother being a true river in South-East England, near Hastings, but this first book does not put me in a particularly eager mood to seek the next volumes, as I find the story, the plot, the characters, and the settings all quite disappointing. Maybe having a truly parallel universe does not help (although it worked pretty well with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell!). Having a boarding school with weird teachers does not either, as they are never exhibited as particularly competent in their own field and as students are absolutely invisible in the novel, while supposed to be the brightest in the whole of England. (Which makes a comparison with Harry Potter megalogy pointless.) Having this town of Rotherweird stuck in a rather indefinite time (and banning any attempt at history) could have been a great start but characters are very shallow, despite some funny lines, and do not contribute to make the universe more conceivable, just the opposite. Without indulging in spoilers, the final resolution is very very unconvincing.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [BBC One]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on March 18, 2017 by xi'an

After discussing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell with David Frazier in Banff, where I spotted him reading this fabulous book, I went for a look at the series BBC One made out of this great novel. And got so hooked to it that I binge-watched the whole series of 7 episodes over three days..! I am utterly impressed at the BBC investing so much into this show, rendering most of the spirit of the book and not only the magical theatrics. The complex [and nasty] personality of Mr Norrell and his petit-bourgeois quest of respectability is beautifully exposed, leading him to lie and steal and come close to murder [directly or by proxy], in a pre-Victorian and anti-Romantic urge to get away from magical things from the past, “more than 300 years ago”. While Jonathan Strange’s own Romantic inclinations are obvious, including the compulsory  travel to Venezia [even though the BBC could only afford Croatia, it seems!] The series actually made clear some points I had missed in the novel, presumably by rushing through it, like the substitution of Strange’s wife by the moss-oak doppelganger created by the fairy king. The enslavement of Stephen,  servant of Lord Pole and once and future king by the same fairy is also superbly rendered.

While not everything in the series is perfect, with in particular the large scale outdoor scenes being too close to a video-game rendering (as in the battle of Waterloo that boils down to a backyard brawl!), the overall quality of the show [the Frenchmen there parlent vraiment français, with no accent!] and adhesion to the spirit of Susanna Clarke’s novel make it an example of the tradition of excellence of the BBC. (I just wonder at the perspective of a newcomer who would watch the series with no prior exposure to the book!)

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2016 by xi'an

I do not remember precisely for which reason I bought this book but it is most likely because the book popped up in a list of suggested books on a Amazon page. And I certainly feel grateful for the suggestion as this is one of the best books I read in the past years. And not just the best fantasy or the best Gothic book, clearly.

Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was published in 2004 and it soon got high-ranked in most best-seller lists, winning the same year both the Hugo and the Locus prizes. But, once again, while it caters to my tastes in fantasy literature, I find the book spans much more, recreating an alternative 19th Century literature where fairies and magic plays a role in the Napoleonic Wars, including Waterloo. The tone and style are reminders of Dickens, the Brontës, and Austen, but also Gothic 19th Century masters, like Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Even the grammar is modified into archaic or pseudo-archaic versions. But more importantly and enticingly the beautiful style reproduces some of the light irony of Dickens about the author and the characters themselves. Utterly enjoyable!

The story itself is about a new era of English magic launched by the two characters on the cover, after centuries of musty study of magic without the power or the will of practising any form of magic. (The book enjoys close to 200 footnotes documenting the history of magic in the past centuries, in a pastiche of scholarly works of older days.) While those two characters can manage incredible feats, they seem to have a rather empirical knowledge of the nature of magic and of what they can do about the ancient magicians of the fairy kingdoms that border Northern England. There is no indication in the book that magical abilities are found in other nations, which is most advantageous when fighting the French! A central axis of the plot is the opposition between Norrell and Strange, the former hoping to take complete control of English magic (and buying any book related to the topic to secure them in a private library), the later freely dispensing his art and taking students in. They also clash about the position to take about the fairy or Raven King, John Uskglass, from excluding him from the modern era to acknowledging his essential role in the existence of English magic. They separate and start fighting one another through books and newspaper articles, Strange leaving for Venezia after loosing his wife. Eventually, they have to reunite to fight the Raven King together and save Strange’s wife, even though the final outcome is somewhat and pleasantly unexpected. (Mind this is a crude summary for a novel of more than 1,000 pages!)

While it seems the author is preparing a sequel, the book stands quite well by itself and I feel another book is somewhat unnecessary: Dickens did not write a sequel to David Copperfield or another perspective on (the Gothic) Great Expectations. But in any case Susanna Clarke wrote there a masterpiece a feat that I hope she can repeat in the future with an altogether book. (And while I liked very much the Quincunx for similar reasons, I deem Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to be far far superior in its recreation of Victorian Gothic!)