Book Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

jsmnIt might have taken me seven months (March-September 2016), but I finally finished one of the longest books I’ve ever read. The paperback version was more than 1000 pages, a veritable brick of a book to take with me when I went out. I read it in bits and pieces, 5 pages here, 10 pages there. During a road trip in May I got through a whopping 40% of it.

Honestly, by the time I was about halfway through, finishing was as much a point of pride as it was to see how the story would wrap up.

I am speaking, of course, of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

I was thrilled when I found the book in one of the 13 bags my grandmother had set aside for me a few years ago. (She was starting to clean out her very overstuffed bookshelves, and generously told me to take whatever I wanted.) Somehow, she had ended up with the British version–the price on the back was in pounds, not dollars–and I was even more surprised that my grandmother had a historical fantasy book on her shelves.

After years of reading other things first (and being admittedly intimidated by the size of it), I finally sucked it up and started reading.

And fell headfirst in love.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a story about two magicians living in England in the early 1800s, working to bring magic back to England as part of the war effort against the French. Mr. Norrell is the older and more cautious one, with little ability to interact with people and even less of an ability to read them. Jonathan Strange is much younger, having only just come into his magical ability more recently. They are both teacher and pupil, friends, and rivals throughout the story, and while their relationship and its evolution makes up the backbone of the novel, it is by no means the only major thread.

My favorite part of the novel was easily the tone and narration. It set a lovely atmosphere, reminded me a little of Jane Austen, and drew me so completely into the world. Footnotes abound throughout the story, expanding on myths and legends and references that the characters make, and they do a beautiful job of rounding out the world. Sometimes it was serious, sometimes it was wry, but all of it made the novel a joy to read.

1000 pages is long, but I honestly can’t think of anything that could’ve been cut. It all brings the story together so well, weaving threads over the course of a tale that spans a decade, dipping into and out of the viewpoints of minor and secondary characters as well as the two mains themselves. It’s like watching a tapestry being formed, and I loved every minute of it. Seriously, I don’t think I was ever bored, and that’s saying something, especially with a book that’s so long.

If you’ve been curious about this book, or are at all a fan of fantasy and/or history, I highly encourage you to read it. It’s a fantastic, engaging story with such a rich world behind it.

(And yes, read all the footnotes.)

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