I first picked up this book about 5 years ago. I read the first 20 pages or so, decided it wasn’t for me, and put it down. This was before I started giving all books at least 100 pages to woo me. Past-Lisa was dumb. I’m GLAD Past-Lisa was deprived of this book – she didn’t deserve to read it. Present-Lisa is much cleverer, and realized after about 40 pages what a gem Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is.
This book is classed solidly in the historical/Victorian fantasy genre. Think of a similar setting to Naomi Novik’s “His Majesty’s Dragon” or Galen Beckett’s "The Magicians & Mrs. Quent", and you’ll have a good idea of what the world is like. The story starts of slowly, and moves at a sedate pace throughout many parts of the narrative, but Clarke’s language and subtle character building are engaging enough to get you through the slow parts. Her use of footnotes is especially interesting; while she does occasionally use them for comic relief, she more often uses them for careful world-building, fairytale tangents, foreshadowing, or clarification of past events. An interesting side-effect of the footnotes is that they makes you a very careful reader – you better damn well be paying attention if you want to get the full story!
I’ll be frank – I’ve had a very hard time writing “good” reviews lately. It’s simple for me to snidely pick at a book’s flaws when I don’t like it, or even when I do like it but the problems are glaring enough to be easy pickins’. But this year when a book has been truly good – solid throughout, plot-hole-free, unencumbered by trite characters or over-done fantasy tropes – I’ve had trouble coming up with a review that does that goodness justice. It seems like I’ve praised “good books” every way they can be praised, so when a truly exceptional gem appears I have no new descriptors to do it justice with.
I suppose I’ll have to fall once again to the hackneyed words of praise that I use so often. Strange & Norrell is an excellent book, and absolutely worth the patience required to get through the first 50 pages. It’s unique, intriguing, subtle, and vibrant. I count myself lucky – those who those who read this book when it came out have been waiting 5 years for more stories by Ms. Clarke; I’ve only been waiting a few months, but I’m already beside myself with anticipation.