Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004
Buy from

Rate this Book

Sonderbooks 87
    Previous Book
    Next Book

        Previous Book
        Next Book

Young Adult Fiction
Children's Nonfiction
Children's Fiction
Picture Books

2004 Stand-outs
    Previous Book
    Next Book

2003 Stand-outs
2002 Stand-outs
2001 Stand-outs

Five-Star Books
    Previous Book
    Next Book

Four-Star Books
Old Favorites
Back Issues
List of Reviews by Title
List of Reviews by Author

Why Read?
Children and Books
Links For Book Lovers
Book Discussion Forum

About Me
Contact Me
Make a Donation

I don't review books I don't like!

*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations


*****Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

by Susanna Clarke

Reviewed October 26, 2004.
Bloomsbury, New York, 2004.  782 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (F CLA).
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004, Favorite Book of the Year for Grown-ups

There was no way I intended to bring home a 782-page book.  However, when I processed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell at the library, I read the flap and the beginnings of a few chapters and became completely captivated.

The approach is similar to another book I loved, Sorcery and Cecilia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, although in this case the setting is much more elaborate, as this is a book for adults.  We have an alternate reality of England during the Napoleonic Wars, with one small change being that magic exists.

The style of the book is that of a nineteenth-century novel, complete with illustrations every so often and even footnotes.  I do love an old-fashioned novel, and though I didn’t want to make all my other reading wait until this book was done, I decided to read a chapter a night from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

This method was successful at first, since the plot progresses in a leisurely manner.  But the further I read, the more I was hooked on the story.  I suspect that this is part of the reason that I quit reading so many books I had attempted for the last issue of Sonderbooks.  Many of them seemed flat when read immediately after a chapter of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Mr. Norrell claims to have brought back practical magic, which left England long ago with the departure of the Raven King.  Now he wants to help fight against Napoleon.  He’s willing to break his own principles to do it and call upon a fairy to help him.  No one else knows the price he paid in order to get the attention of the government.

Soon another magician arises, seemingly in accordance with a street magician’s prophecy.  This new magician, Jonathan Strange, goes to the celebrated Mr. Norrell to learn from him.  Jonathan Strange is more personable than Mr. Norrell, and is even a married man.  He has differences with his tutor, but studying with Mr. Norrell seems to be the only way he can have access to Mr. Norrell’s library of all the remaining books of magic in England.

When Jonathan Strange agrees to go to Portugal to help the Duke of Wellington fight against Napoleon’s army, the ways of the two magicians begin to diverge.  When he returns, Mr. Strange doesn’t realize that the life of his own wife is in danger.

Susanna Clarke weaves an intricate world, following the stories of many different people.  Eventually, these stories all come together in a crisis that could bring the downfall of England.

Although the plotting is leisurely, the story is full of intriguing hints of a fascinating history.  Who was the Raven King?  What would happen to a magician who calls on the magic of the Raven King?  All this is revealed a little bit at a time, pulling us along, leaving us eager for more.  By the time I was halfway through the book, I didn’t care how long it took me, I was going to finish this before anything else.  When I finished it, the next day I was able to purchase a copy at the Frankfurt Book Fair to try to convince my husband and son to read it.  Even if they don’t find it interesting, I know I’ll want to read it again some day soon.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is an astonishing accomplishment for a first novelist.  The flap copy implies that it took Susanna Clarke more than ten years to write, and I can easily believe it.  The plotting is intricate, with dozens of threads all tying together at the end.  The history of the tradition of English magic is amazingly detailed and full of amusing little stories that contribute to the mood.

This book will appeal to those who love a good nineteenth century novel as well as to those who enjoy fantasy, though it’s certainly not your typical fantasy story.  There are no “adult” themes, so teens who can tackle an extremely long book will also find this good reading.  Highly recommended.  Try a chapter or two of this book, and see if you can keep from reading on.

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

-top of page-