Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Magically Historical

I just finished reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Chase, and I am...well, I'm stunned. It is an amazing book. Really. I mean, I sort of avoided it, because it was really long, and I just thought it might be slow, and boring. I'm going to make a confession here. I have trouble getting through Jane Austen. I mean, I like it when I'm reading, I love the stories, but I get sort of...bored with it. It doesn't really hold my attention. So, naturally, I was wary of a book that presented itself as having an Austien voice (is that a word? Austien? It seems like it should be.), especially one that was about magicians.

I could not have been more wrong about my perception of the book.

From the beginning, with the introduction of the good natured and affable Mr. Honeyfoot and the eager and honest John Segundus, I was hooked. The book is a pleasure from beginning to end, and was difficult to put down when it was time to get off the train, finish lunch, go to sleep. The book is packed with footnotes, each of which is almost a short story in and of itself that sets the context of magic in English history, since the whole conceit of the book is that magic is real, it exists, and it is centered in England. Most gentlemen who style themselves as "magicians" are theoretical magicians, who can't actually make any of the spells work, until they call out the reclusive Mr. Norrell, who claims to be a practical magician. Norrell is deliberative, quiet, secretive, and, above all, uninterested in sharing his art with anybody at all. Until the energetic Jonathan Strange enters his life, anyway. Strange takes up magic almost as a lark, and is expansive and lively where Norrell is self contained and dry. Between them they help Wellington defeat Bonaparte, with Strange rearranging other countries at will. Throw in faerie enchantments, clever servants who should be given their due, and the overarching presence of the mysterious John Uskglass, the Raven King who brought magic into England hundreds of years earlier.

One of the things that struck me as read this book is that I do think of magic as being a peculiarly British thing. When I think of magic I think of the standing rings, my idea of Faerie is completely interwoven with British mythology. Even the landscape I think of when I think of magic is British. I'd really never thought of it before. I mean, other cultures must have traditions of magic. Certainly the Germans burned plenty of witches back in the day. But English magic is sort of, well, friendly. Cozy. Domestic. Familiar.

Sort of like this book.

Here's a link to the book on Amazon.


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