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Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary British Fantasy Fiction’

So now we have reached the end of the third week of the readalong. I had a bad reading week during the second week, but I am happy to say that I managed to catch up during the third week (I don’t think I have read so much in a week before) and though I am a couple of days late, I am happy to be posting my review today.

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell By Susanna Clarke

Because I couldn’t read much of the second volume last week, I thought I will write about both the second and third volumes today.

 

In the second volume, Jonathan Strange and Arabella are married and move to London. Strange starts learning and practising magic on his own. One of his friends suggests that he become a student of Norrell. After thinking about it a bit, Strange goes to meet Norrell and after the initial hiccups Norrell is glad to accept him as his student. They have some wonderful times together discussing magic, trying new spells and helping the government. At some point Strange goes to Spain and stays with the English army and helps the army during the war using magic. His reputation grows. Meanwhile Stephen Black and Lady Pole get abducted each night and dance at a night-long magical party and they come back during the day to their regular homes. They are not able to complain about it to anyone because when they try, what they want to say doesn’t come out but they start describing some unrelated event or story because of a magical spell cast by the fairy which is abducting them. If I can make a long story short, at some point Strange comes back from the war, he and Norrell have a fallout and they part ways. The abducting fairy now starts eyeing someone else to kidnap to his party. And towards the end of the second volume one of my favourite characters dies. It was so unexpected and heartbreaking. (Susanna Clarke, how can you do this??)

 

In the third volume, Strange and Norrell start having a cold war of sorts and Norrell sabotages every attempt that Strange makes to take magic to the public and he also maligns Strange’s name at every turn. Strange writes and publishes a book on English magic and Norrell makes it disappear. At some point because of some things which happen (and about which I can’t write about, because I will be revealing spoilers), Strange and the fairy which abducts people, get into a war. Initially Strange is at the receiving end, but then he learns now spells and techniques and gives it back. And then the place Strange lives in gets enveloped by eternal night.

 

What happens to Norrell and Strange? Are they able to resolve their differences? What happens to Stephen Black and Lady Pole? Are they able to come out of the clutches of the fairy? Why did that favourite character have to die at the end of the second volume? And does Strange’s plan to take magic to the general public succeed? What about the Raven King? Does he make an appearance? Is the eternal night problem resolved? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the book.

 

I enjoyed reading ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’. Though the thickness of the book (big) and the size of the font (small) are intimidating, it is an even-paced read and the story moves quickly. There are beautiful sentences and humour sprinkled throughout the book. I loved the historical references and the way Susanna Clarke weaves fact with fiction. I was particularly interested in the Duke of Wellington who commands the English army in the peninsular war. When I discovered that his second name was Wellesley, my curiosity was piqued, because there was a British governor general in India during colonial times called Wellesley and I wondered whether it was the same person or whether they had a connection. (My dad is a big fan of the governor general because of the way he developed public infrastructure in India. I discovered that the Duke of Wellington was Arthur Wellesley and he was the younger brother of the Governor General Richard Wellesley. Quite interesting!) I also loved the scenes where some of the other real life characters made an appearance in the book. There is a scene which describes the meetings between Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley and Doctor Polidori, during which Polidori is supposed to have written the first ever vampire story and Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’ and read it out. Many nice things happen at the end, but the ending is also open-ended and all the loose ends are not tied up. There is a promise of happiness but that lies outside the time-period of the story, there are some surprises which make the reader happy and there are some problems which are still unresolved. It makes one wonder whether a sequel was planned and one can’t resist pondering what happened to that. I would be particularly interested in whether the Raven King makes a longer appearance (someone who is probably the Raven King makes a brief appearance in the third volume) and whether Strange is able to solve the eternal night problem.

 

Many thanks to Delia from Postcards from Asia for co-hosting this readalong with me and for inspiring me to read this book. Many thanks to all the participants for joining in the fun.

 

Here are the links to the thoughts on the third volume by the other participants of the readalong :

 

Delia (Postcards from Asia)

TJ (My Book Strings)

Fleur (Fleur in Her World)

Yasmine (Yasmine Rose’s Book Blog)

 

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This is my second post in the ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’ readalong. 

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell By Susanna Clarke

I have some bad news. I couldn’t read for most of the week because of a family emergency. I thought I will be able to catch up during the latter part of the week, but, unfortunately, it was not possible. I thought I will read atleast half of the second volume of the book and post on that, but I couldn’t even do that. I could read just fifty pages in the second volume. I apologize to fellow readalong participants for not being able to finish reading volume 2 and letting you down. I promise that I will catch up with you during the coming week.

My favourite parts of the second volume till now were the re-appearance of Mr.Segundus and Mr.Honeyfoot, the magic that Jonathan Strange did – the subtle one where he interchanges a book with its image in the mirror, so that the image is outside while the book is inside the mirror and the story told in the long footnote on the Master of Nottingham’s daughter. I also liked the references to Mr.Lewis (Matthew Gregory Lewis who wrote ‘The Monk’) and Mrs.Radcliffe (Ann Radcliffe who wrote ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’). I am looking forward to reading more.

Two of my favourite passages from volume 2 till now are these :

A great horse-chestnut leant over the road and made a pool of black shadow, and when the two riders reached the shadow it swallowed them up so that nothing remained of them except their voices. 

If we measure a magician’s success by how much magic he does, then Absalom was no magician at all, for his spells hardly ever took effect. However, if instead we examine the amount of money a magician makes and allow that to be our yardstick, then Absalom was certainly one of the greatest English magicians who ever lived, for he was born in poverty and died a very rich man. 

 

Here are the links to the thoughts of other participants of the readalong on volume 2.

 

Delia (Postcards from Asia)

TJ (My Book Strings)

            Fleur (Fleur in her World)

         Yasmine (Yasmine Rose’s Book Blog)

For more information on this readalong, do visit here or here.

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This is my first post in the ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’ readalong. I finished reading the first volume, ‘Mr.Norrell’ today. Here is what I think about it.

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell By Susanna Clarke

Story

 

It is the autumn of 1806. Jane Austen is still around. She is 31. And she hasn’t yet published her first book ‘Sense and Sensibility’. That will have to wait for five more years. The Napoleonic wars are in full swing. Admiral Thomas Cochrane (the inspiration for the character of Jack Aubrey in the novel ‘Master and Commander’ by Patrick O’Brian) is the captain of a ship in the British navy and Captain Frederick Marryat (author of ‘The Children of the New Forest) works as a midshipman in the same vessel. The British navy is busy engaging and fending off the French navy in battles at sea. And England is a land where magic has long disappeared. There are societies of magicians in different cities in Britain who meet regularly and discuss the history of magic. Their members call themselves theoretical magicians. Nobody practices practical magic. No one knows how to do it. Then one of the members of the York society of magicians discovers an enigmatic magician who avoids people, and who is believed to be a practical magician. Two of the society members travel to this magician’s place to investigate. They learn that this gentleman is a practical magician. His name is Mr.Norrell. And one day he demonstrates his magical skills in a very impressive way. His fame spreads far and wide. Mr.Norrell feels that he can do good for his country in the war, if he moves to London. He does that. But, as a person, Norrell doesn’t look very interesting. He looks like a scholar and he talks like one. People are easily bored with him. One day a potential patron of his, Sir Walter Pole, suffers a big tragedy. His fiancée dies of illness. Mr.Norrell’s friends request him to use magic to bring back the young woman from the dead. After a lot of cajoling and convincing, Norrell agrees to do that. And he does it quite impressively. Norrell becomes a superstar among the London elite and is frequently invited to the London salons of famous patrons. Even the government takes his help in fighting the war with the French and Norrell uses magic impressively to do that. This is what most of what the first volume is about. Towards the end of volume 1, we are introduced to Jonathan Strange, who has inherited a big fortune after his father has passed away, and the woman he loves, Arabella. And a street magician reads out a prophecy that two great magicians will come out in England.

 

Impressions

 

I have been intimidated by the size of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’ and so have avoided reading it for years. After starting it, I discovered that inspite of its size and tiny font, it is quite fast-paced and the story flows smoothly. Not fast-paced like a modern day crime novel, but fast-paced in a leisurely way like a Victorian novel. Susanna Clarke sprinkles the story with sentences filled with Victorian style humour which enlivens the reading experience. (If you are nitpicky about such things, the Victorian era started in 1837 and lasted till 1901. The period in which ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’ is set is the Georgian era. But for purposes of this post, I am calling the whole 19th century as the Victorian era.)  

 

Susanna Clarke’s prose style is quite modern but it is also Victorian and reflects the period in which the novel is set in. How Susanna Clarke managed to do that – make a sentence look Victorian and modern at the same time – one will never know. It is magic, if you ask me.

 

As could be expected in a novel of this size, it is sprinkled with dozens of characters. Some of them, of course, are major characters (for example, Mr.Norrell) while others are minor (for example, John Segundus), but all of them have interesting roles to play. One of my favourite minor characters is Perroquet, the short servant of the French Admiral Desmoulins. He is smart and intelligent, uses his reasoning skills to telling effect and teaches the French naval officers a thing or two. Unfortunately, it looks like he is destined to play a role in only chapter – unless he makes an appearance again in the second part of the book. Another of my favourite characters is Stephen Black, the African butler of Sir Walter Pole. He is handsome, smart, intelligent and is admired by real people and fairies alike. I am hoping that Stephen Black will have a major role to play in the latter part of the book. On Arabella, the young woman whom Jonathan Strange loves – I wonder whether Susanna Clarke named (probably) her heroine Arabella to pay homage to the original Arabella from Rafael Sabatini’s ‘Captain Blood’.

 

I liked the way Susanna Clarke fleshed out the essence of a character through a few broad brushstrokes. For example, she says this about Mr.Segundus :

 

Mr.Segundus was one of those happy gentlemen who can always say whether they face north or south, east or west. It was not a talent he took any particular pride in – it was as natural to him as knowing that his head still stood upon his shoulders.

 

And this about Mr.Lascelles :

 

Mr.Lascelles was one of that uncomfortable breed of men who despise steady employment of any sort. Though perfectly conscious of his own superior understanding, he had never troubled to acquire any particular skills or knowledge, and had arrived at the age of thirty-nine entirely unfitted for any office or occupation.

 

And this about Mrs.Wintertowne :

 

Mrs.Wintertowne, whose character was so forceful, and whose opinions were handed down to people in the manner of Moses distributing the commandments, did not appear in the least offended when her daughter contradicted her. Indeed she seemed almost pleased about it.

 

There are also beautiful sentences in the book. Like this one :

 

A great old church in the depths of winter is a discouraging place at the best of times; the cold of a hundred winters seems to have been preserved in its stones and to seep out of them.

 

And this one :

 

Three tall windows open on a view of English countryside which is tranquil in spring, cheerful in summer, melancholy in autumn and gloomy in winter.

 

And this one :

 

According to Mr.Drawlight, Mr.Norrell’s company was like seasoning : the smallest pinch of it could add a relish to the entire dish.

 

And this one :

 

A bleak, white sun rose in a bleak, white sky like an allegorical picture of despair…

 

The book also has an interesting feature which was prevalent among many novels published in the early few years of the 21st century – a profusion of footnotes. It appears that that fad has died away now, but it was fun while it lasted. There were some ‘giant’ footnotes in this book – for example the ones on Tubbs versus Starhouse and Simon Bloodworth – which spanned multiple pages and pushed the actual story to a distant corner of the page. I love footnotes and so enjoyed reading these giant ones, but some readers might find them distracting. There is also a nod to Mrs.Radcliffe (Ann Radcliffe, who wrote ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’) a couple of times, which I liked very much.

 

The first volume of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’ sets the stage for the rest of the story by introducing us to the setting and the historical period and to many of the characters and showing us a part of their lives. I can’t wait to continue the story and read the second volume and find out more about Jonathan Strange and Arabella.

 

Here are the links to the thoughts of other participants of the readalong.

 

Delia (Postcards from Asia)

TJ (My Book Strings)

            Fleur (Fleur in her World)

         Yasmine (Yasmine Rose’s Book Blog)

For more information on this readalong, do visit here or here.

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Today is the start of the ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’ readalong hosted by Delia from Postcards from Asia and me. We thought we will wish everyone a happy time reading this beautiful book and we are looking forward to reading your impressions of the first part of the book next weekend.

 

For those of you who are still sitting on the fence, I thought you might like reading the book blurb :

 

The year is 1806. England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains : the reclusive Mr.Norrell whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician : the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrell. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms the one between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.

 Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell By Susanna Clarke

If you are interested in participating, do leave a comment either here or in Delia’s introduction post, with a link to your blog.

 

As mentioned in our previous posts, our review schedule will be as follows :

 

  • Volume 1 : Mr Norrell (261 pages)  – review to be posted on 18th January (Saturday)
  • Volume 2 : Jonathan Strange (368 pages) – review to be posted on 25th January (Saturday)
  • Volume 3 : John Uskglass (369 pages) – review to be posted on 1st February (Saturday)

 

The following are the readalong participants and links to their introductory posts.

 

Delia (Postcards from Asia)

Vishy (Vishy’s Blog)

Yasmine (Yasmine Rose’s Book Blog)

Fleur (Fleur in her World)

TJ (My Book Strings)

 

Happy reading!

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A few years back I was in the middle of reading books which had wizards and magicians, mostly set in today’s world, in which young boys and girls wielded magic wands and fought with villains who were threatening to destroy the world. Harry Potter was, of course, the most famous one, but there were others whom I loved equally well – like Artemis Fowl, the Djinn Bartimaeus and his magician and Percy Jackson. One of the books that I got during this time was Susanna Clarke’s ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’. It had magicians and wizardry in it but it seemed to be a novel for grownups with grownup characters. It was different from other novels which purveyed magic in two ways. First, at more than 1000 pages, it rivalled established classics like ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’ for the ‘Chunkster’ title. And second, it was a one-volume work, unlike other ‘magic’ novels which were a series of books (Harry Potter was a 7-part series, Bartimaeus was a 3-part series, Artemis Fowl was an 8-part series.) Both these together made me want to get this book. But its size always intimidated me and inspite of the rave reviews it got (Neil Gaiman calls it “unquestionably, the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years” – real high praise, indeed) I postponed reading it. It looked like this book was destined for the ‘tsundoku’ life for a while (‘tsundoku’ (in Japanese) = the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other such unread books).

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell By Susanna Clarke

When my old friend Delia from Postcards from Asia said that she too had a copy of this book, I was quite excited. We had an excited conversation about it and decided to do a readalong. If you would like to read and discuss this chunky, beautiful book, do grab a copy of this book and join us. The rules of the readalong are as follows :

 

  1. The readalong starts on 11th January (this coming Saturday)
  2. The book is divided into three volumes, so the readalong will take place across three weeks:

·         Volume I: Mr Norrell (261 pages) – review to be posted on 18th January

·         Volume II: Jonathan Strange (368 pages) – review to be posted on 25th January

·         Volume III: John Uskglass (369 pages) – review to be posted on 1st of February

  1. If you’d like to participate, do mention that in the comments (here or on Delia’s blog, or both if you like) and link back to your blog. This way we can add your review to the weekly post. You can also join at any time during the readalong.

 

Looking forward to discussing this book during the coming weeks. Happy reading!

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