I 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 Amazon.com 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.
For 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.