“This Book is Too Long!”

Award-winning, bestselling... and 800+ pagesI know of many fantasy readers (myself sometimes included) who pick what book to read next based on how long it is – for epic fantasies, the longer the better. Books like this are a huge commitment though, and so for a lot of people, the fact that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is over 800 pages long outweighs everything else about it. Does Susanna Clarke tell a good story? Is there any neat magic? If the book is too long for you to get past the first 100 pages, you might never know.

When I was reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I had a sense that it was a long book, but I read relatively quickly, and I admit to reading much worse books that were just as long and part of a 10 book series to boot. I’m referring to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which clocks in at 10 books so far (of a projected 12). The Jordan situation shows how fantasy readers can be masochistic and addicted. It’s like random reinforcement – when a lengthy tale like this goes right, there’s nothing quite like it.

The impulse to have a story continue is a venerable one, especially in genre fiction like science fiction and fantasy. I’ve looked at the pros and cons of sequels over at Strange Horizons. The con of course is the stifling requirement that nothing should change – more of the same, always as identical as possible. I think that’s why the seventh Dark Tower book irked so many (see my Gutter review here), as Stephen King actually dared to make his main character grow and change and suffer an unexpected fate at the end of that series.

With this mania for sequels and long stories in mind, I was a little surprised to see how many of the user comments on the entry for Jonathan Strange were complaints about the length. I should clarify: most complaints combined a sense that the book was boring with an apprehensive guess that it was not going to get better in the hundreds of pages to come. But why on earth would Clarke write such a long book?

Because she damn well likes it! This reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s testiness on the whole “Why do you write long books?” issue. See what Stephenson has to say (click on Author and then Verbosity): “Personally, I am delighted to read extremely long books, or series of books, as long as they hold my interest.” This is all extra ironic, since my apprehensiveness about length is what has prevented me from making the plunge (so far) into Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and the System series, even though I enjoyed his books Snow Crash and The Diamond Age.

Award-winning, bestselling... and 800+ pagesFor some, if the book is long, and they have an inkling it’s not up their alley, then they won’t commit the time. I took a chance here, and happily, this book resonated with me.

In some ways, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a biography of the title characters. The two men live in England in the early 1800s, at a time when there has been no magic in the country for about 300 years. Clarke makes good use of a period tone, à la Jane Austen, with nice nods to various English fantasy novels. She creates a thorough alternate history of “English magic”, which reminded me of Borges or Eco. But there’s less narrative gameplaying than I expected.

In fact, the crux of the plot was not what I was expecting at all. Early on, Mr. Norrell is desperate to impress London society, and he finally succeeds by bringing back a noblewoman from death. But he doesn’t fully understand the deal he’s made with a fairy power, and the unpleasant consequences keep piling up.

Some commenters have pointed out how long it takes Strange and Norrell to understand the threat. I didn’t think they understood it all, and this plays nicely into Clarke’s overall point that English magic is a shadow of its former self. Compared to how this threat is actually defeated, Strange and Norrell are pipsqueaks.

This too can put people off the book – I don’t think readers are generally used to a book of this length spending its time showing how insignificant the main characters are (or more properly, pawns in a centuries-long endgame). The patience required reinforces the point of the ending – too many fantasy novels suffer from the “If only Frodo could just fly to Mordor somehow!” syndrome. Here the years that pass and continents that get covered make sense.

Clarke’s treatment of magic is also quite interesting. There’s a continuum in fantasy, from the earthy, understated magic of Lord of the Rings (Gandalf does very little showy stuff) to the no-holds-barred magic-spectacular of Erikson’s Malazan series. Clarke pulls some unique tricks here. The “faded glory of yesteryear” feel is definitely in the Tolkien camp. And yes, it’s true that Strange and Norrell spend much of the story stymied and ignorant. But then Strange, on the Napoleonic campaign, will do something like accidentally move the city of Brussels to North America. It’s a wild mix! Clarke makes it all hang together with her extensively detailed alternate history.

Clarke also grounds her book in a Jane Austen/everyday life approach, along with a healthy dose of the urban. Tolkien did something original with his ruralism, but since then it’s become a cliché. Thankfully, there’s no Ye Olde English crap here. That’s probably what makes Jonathan Strange such a great book for me: Clarke successfully navigates through a genre that is packed with landmines for the lazy. The book is smart and feels like a unique creature at the same time as it pays homage to its influences. And it’s just long enough.

6 replies »

  1. A number of people told us* they read JS&MN during and inbetween other books. They’d read for a while, put it down, mull over it while reading something else, then go back. I’ve heard few outright complaints about length (I mean, you can SEE how big it is before you start – you darn well know what you’re getting into).
    What makes it work is that the book isn’t long for the sake of length, but rather because that’s how long it takes to tell that particular story. And her grasp of Regency-era conventions and dialogue is deft and delightful. I was totally captured by the book, even when it seemed nothing was happening. Because something was always happening – just not in a way a reader might expect or even recognize.
    Kind of like magic.
    * ‘Us’ being the bookstore staff


  2. LADIES is actually a collection of short stories (Jonathan Strange has a cameo in the title story).
    From what I’ve read of it so far, it looks at the world and magic from such different angles that it does even more of what James what talking about above: make JS and Mr. N seem that much more insignificant.


  3. Hey James,
    I talked to you while you were reading this book (and honestly, I thought the book looked too long for me to get into right now), but after reading this article I’m considering giving it a shot…


  4. Heh– funny that Andrew’s last article on the Gutter was also about length… must be something in the air.
    I had a weird entrance into this book — I started listening to it as an audiobook, and then ran across it for $10 while travelling in England — I burn through books so fast when I’m travelling it seemed like good value (a penny a page!) and since I’d sampled it already and it’d stuck with me I figured it was a sure bet. And it was — I found it compulsive reading but didn’t have that “oh, I just finished a whole bag of chips in one sitting” feeling I do when I get to the end of a Steven King doorstop.
    My favorite element of it was the brilliant idea that in faery, magic is strong and sanity weak, and in humans it’s the inverse — it gives the faery in her book and in the canon of faery tales a real sinister whimsey. It makes s’much darn sense, it could be science fiction in that regard!
    And yeah, I found Norrell’s societal jockeying so much more interesting than another quest for some magical plot point. But then, I like Jane Austen better than Tolkien.


  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone!
    It’s strange, Jim, but I’ve heard back from a fair number of people who listened to the audiobook version of this novel. I’m not sure if I’d have the patience to listen to such a long audiobook myself… But then again, a book like this isn’t necessarily about what will happen next, as people have mentioned, but rather about savouring the details of an era.


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