raven: (misc - inside the box)
[personal profile] raven
Trying to review this book is going to be difficult.

Okay. First of all, I bought it when it first came out in paperback. I did. I'm sorry. I was eighteen, I used to spend my evenings in the Oxford Borders - partly because it was about twenty metres from Balliol's back gate, and partly because it opened till eleven - studying, drinking filter coffee and accidentally buying books. I took it home to that beautiful college attic room I had then, the one with the portholes looking out on the Ashmolean, yes, really, and put it in on the shelf fully meaning to read it when the essay crisis was over.

I turned twenty-six the Sunday before last.

Yeah. The worst thing is, from now on when I have carried books, unread, from room to house to flat to room to country to continent and back again, over eight years, I'm not going to think, oh I should give it to Oxfam, I'm going to think but what if it's like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell?

Yeah. I finished Whispers Under Ground last week, was struck by the glossed-over backstory in that - Nightingale's past, the magical battles at Ettersburg - and decided I was in the mood for some kind of epic magic. So I picked it up again, and got off to a rocky start - I've read the first hundred pages at least three times - and then read it all through, all 1000+ words of it, in six days. It is a very, very good book, and I wish I hadn't taken eight years to get around to reading it.

In brief, then: this is a novel set in an alternate past where England is at war with France and Napoleon is marching across Europe, but has another history, of magic and magicians and fairies and fairy roads. In the year of our Lord 1806 magic has been gone from England for three hundred years, but it is right there, beneath the surface of the present. The novel is about Mr Norrell, a fussy, miserable, misterly (with education rather than money) man, who is the first practical English magician in centuries, and his young, brilliant, arrogant pupil, Jonathan Strange. And it's also about the Raven King, a magician-king who ruled over northern England and the fairy lands through the Middle Ages, whose influence is a living thing. (The King, George III (who is mad, yes) is king of southern England and steward of the north - pending the day the Raven King shall return.)

Which is to say: it's about a lot more than that. It is a beautifully realised alternate history, textured and real (I particularly like the turns of speech: things that are being kept safe are said to be "in the Raven King's pocket"!); it's a ripping yarn, full of adventures, excitement and magic; it's very funny (the interlude featuring the tumultuous friendship of Jonathan Strange and Lord Byron is hilarious and could do with a comic opera all to itself); and it's written with such an engaging style that once you get used to the particularly arch, dry wit, you happily read the hundreds of pages before Strange comes along that just have Norrell as a protagonist despite the total unlikeability of the man. And the themes explored are as grand as you might expect in a novel of this scope but they're not what you might expect: it's not good and evil, it's not love or hate. It's about the lines between rationality and madness (and why "madness" for brown people and women is not an uncontested definition); it's about who takes responsibility for actions; it's about England. This is a very peculiarly English novel. It's about how the people are the land and the land is the people, about how the land itself no longer exists apart, is no longer rocks and stone and water because of the layers and layers of history of people tilling and building upon and tending and living on and in and with the land. Magic makes it much easier to explore that theme, but I'm certainly not a magician and what I do in my day job is centred on just that strange duality: on how people bring the land into existence, and vice versa. The land is all too shallow / It is painted on the sky.. Yes.

(The next part is going to feature specifics about the ending, so if you haven't read the book and intend to - without spoilers! - then please look away now.)

And of course what I loved - beyond the telling of it, really - is that it seems rather a lot like a book where women and brown people fall into all the tired old tropes. A woman and a black man are placed under an enchantment to further white men's character development. Another woman dies so the man who loves her will go to the dark side. Yawn.

But in the end - Lady Pole, Stephen Black and Arabella Strange save the world and they save themselves. Strange and Norrell are left, still fighting each other and the world, in the dark. Which could be a bitter ending as well a triumphant one, but if all of that weren't enough, it's a love story as well. And my favourite kind, too: the love story of two people whose eyes at no point meet over a crowded room. Jonathan Strange falls in love with Arabella and tries romantically and pathetically to impress her; she never takes him the slightest bit seriously and loves him back; they get married and their married life is complicated by events outside, they fight, sometimes in public, they have serious disagreements, they love each other so much that when he returns from Spain after three years away they bicker over how long he can reasonably look at her just to make up all the time he didn't get to look at her. And the book ends on that love - after he's turned over fairyland and earth to save her, and she hasn't forgiven him for the terrible things he's done - when neither of them can be anything other than that what they've come to be, but between themselves, they endure. I loved them. I love all of this.

Next up, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, the short stories set in the same universe.

on 2013-02-03 03:49 am (UTC)
alpheratz: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] alpheratz
I read this many years ago, and reading your review brought that sense of wonder and magic back for me. I'm a little afraid of rereading this book because of how strongly I remember it, but I'm so pleased that it's still new to some.

on 2013-02-04 01:03 pm (UTC)
marymac: Noser from Middleman (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] marymac
Ooo, I had just restarted it before I did my ankle mangling stunt and have been too drugged and handless (I can currently only read things I can carry between fingers, argh crutches) to resume since, but it is waiting for me. Alluringly. Moreso since this review!

I think you will enjoy Ladies of Grace Adieu, although the stories are perforce much brisker, in a snippety Austen-ish way.

on 2013-02-18 07:16 am (UTC)
starlady: (a sad tale's best)
Posted by [personal profile] starlady
This is a great review. I read the book the Christmas of the year it came out (a particularly appropriate time, given that it's such a winter novel) and I want to reread it. It's so--it's beyond good; it's true, and magnificent.

on 2013-02-02 11:30 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] littlered2.livejournal.com
The worst thing is, from now on when I have carried books, unread, from room to house to flat to room to country to continent and back again, over eight years, I'm not going to think, oh I should give it to Oxfam, I'm going to think but what if it's like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell?

Oh, thanks; now I'm going to have that in the back of my mind when I try to get rid of some of my piles of unread books.

on 2013-02-02 11:40 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Ahaha, I live to serve.

on 2013-02-03 01:40 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] khalinche.livejournal.com
I love this book so unreasonably much that I think it has permanently altered my writing style. It was one of 4 English-language books I had while on fieldwork and I read it hundreds and hundreds of times. Even as a non-Englisher, it is so sparkling and thoughtful and bright and dark and entertaining. I wish there were 8 more set in the same 'verse.

on 2013-02-07 09:18 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Oh, yes, yes, me too! It is so good. And the footnotes are amazing. I love the texture and detail and realness of it all.

on 2013-02-03 01:42 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] khalinche.livejournal.com
And the FOOTNOTES, OMG the footnotes.

on 2013-02-03 03:12 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] bibliotropic.livejournal.com
I loved that book so much, and The Ladies of Grace Adieu as well.

on 2013-02-07 09:19 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
I am so excited to read The Ladies of Grace Adieu! It should be here tomorrow!

on 2013-02-03 12:15 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] denorios.livejournal.com
This is my all-time favourite book - I could read it again and again and again and never get tired of it. I think it's very much a love-hate book - I rec it to everyone and people either love it or they just can't get into it. But I love the arch Jane-Austen tone and the archaic spelling and the footnotes and the way it very much reads like real history. You come out of this book and you forget, just for a minute, that magic isn't real and this isn't really how the Napoleonic War went and there isn't a Raven King somewhere out there...

on 2013-02-07 09:19 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
The tone actually makes me think more of Patrick O'Brien than Jane Austen, but I totally get what you mean. It's so all-encompassing and engaging, it's such a work of art.

on 2013-02-03 10:39 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] mirabile-dictu.livejournal.com
I love that book so much, and you describe it so well. And oh, Arabella. And Stephen Black! How much I loved those characters and just ached for them. A whole world to slip into. And I've never looked at mirrors quite the same.

on 2013-02-07 09:20 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Hee! Oh, it's just that: a whole world. I want desperately to know how this world looks in the twenty-first century.

on 2013-02-04 06:52 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] yiskah.livejournal.com
I ADORE that book, though I haven't read it since it first came out in 2005. Perhaps it is time for a reread.

Also, we seem to have very similar taste in books, judging by this and A Suitable Boy and the Vorkosigan books. What other marvellous books are out there that you would recommend?

on 2013-02-04 10:51 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
It's such a wonderful book, and bizarrely, I found myself mentally comparing it to A Suitable Boy. Perhaps because it creates this whole, real world, and then immerses you in it for however long it takes you to read 1000+ pages, and then you miss it when you're not reading it any more.

I would love to recommend you books! Hurrah! Off the top of my head and my booklogs for the past few years (and I apologise in advance if I rec anything I've recced before, and also, I think you have not read much SF? so I am feeling free to rec rather well-known stuff, if you see what I mean):

-Doomsday Book, Connie Willis - another long, long, loooong book, that creates a whole world and gets under your skin. Briefly: they invent time travel in Oxford and our hero goes back to the time of the plague, adventures ensue, it is so much deeper and darker and better than this makes it sound. It has a companion volume, To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is a romantic comedy of manners which is SF riffing off Jerome K Jerome, it's awesome.

-How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff. Post-apocalyptic love story, kind of remarkable.

-Temeraire, Naomi Novik. The Napoleonic Wars! With dragons! It's a series and the first one is the best: it's all joyous worldbuilding and battles and great fun.

-Ursula Le Guin's Hainish Cycle. These are much harder to find these days than they should be. The Left Hand of Darkness is probably one of the best novels ever written, but desperately sad; The Fisherman of the Inland Sea and The Birthday of the World are happier. These are all set in the near-future of the Ekumen, and though there are spaceships and whatnot, these are novels of (feminist, socialist, radicalist, anarchist) ideas.

-On a similar note, Kalpa Imperial, by Angelica Gorodischer, short stories about an empire that never existed, with so much depth and wonder to them.

-Rivers of London (and two sequels), Ben Aaranovitch. These are light and fluffy but addictive as popcorn - kind of magical police procedural very much informed by the landscape of London. Surprisingly acute on race.

Also! You are reading more SF. I have rarely read anything that's not SF. (With some honourable exceptions.) What should I be reading?

on 2013-02-05 07:36 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] yiskah.livejournal.com
Ah, thank you! I already had Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness on my Kindle unread, but I have just bought ALLLLL your other recommendations. Oh Amazon + Kindle, you will be the death of me financially.

I can see the comparison with A Suitable Boy - I have come to realise that the books I tend to love most are ridiculously lengthy ones that I can lose myself in. As such, you have read Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, haven't you? Because if not I cannot recommend it more highly. I love all of Mantel's historical fiction, but I have a greater emotional attachment to A Place of Greater Safety than to Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies.

As for other books you should read - have you read Amitav Ghosh's historical fiction, particularly the Ibis trilogy (in progress - only two have been published so far, Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke) - fascinating, well-written and informative.

What else? If you have not read any of Diana Athill's memoirs you really should get on that right away. I started with Stet and since then have read everything she's written. Of the books I've read so far this year, the best - in my opinion - have been Andrei Makine's A Life's Music, Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers and Herman Koch's The Dinner - oh, and Andrew Miller's Snowdrops.

AND, on the 'read more SF' side of things, over the past couple of months I have read Catherynne M. Valente's Deathless and Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief and thought both of them were brilliant - though very different - particularly Deathless, which is one of the best books I have ever read. (Possibly helpful to have a nodding acquaintance with Slavic mythology, but not required.)

on 2013-02-07 09:51 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Oh, yay! You must let me know what you think of them all. Thank you for the recommendations! I have always been a bit wary of A Place of Greater Safety - I have lots of well-informed and deeply literary friends who like it, and being neither of those things I've always thought it might be something I don't get. I will give it a try. And EVERYONE has been telling me to go and read Sea of Poppies, so that's definitely next on the list. I've had it on my to-read pile for mumblemumble long.

on 2013-02-08 06:22 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] yiskah.livejournal.com
I would not consider myself either well-informed or deeply literary (I'm not sure what the latter even means), and in fact knew pretty much nothing about the French revolution before reading APoGS, other than, y'know, it had happened - and I still ADORED it. It's the characterisation that makes it for me. Give it a try!

on 2013-02-04 09:58 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] biascut.livejournal.com
There's an interview with Suzanne Clarke where someone asked her about the narrative voice and she says she doesn't know who the narrator is, but she is absolutely sure that she's a woman, and that part of the point of it for her is that the narrator finds men amusing and ridiculous simply because they are men - their pomposities and puffed-up-ness and self-importance.

Also also! One of the footnotes is the story of the Master of Nottingham's daughter and the ring that is swallowed by a fish and gets chased down the Trent, and it mentions all the villages around the one I grew up in except mine, and basically draws a circle around the village I grew up in. And it all happens on the North bank of the Trent, so it's the southern limit of the Raven King's kingdom. I love that!

on 2013-02-04 10:09 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] biascut.livejournal.com
Oh, and I did exactly the same thing with Rivers of Blood - one of my friends gave it me right after it came out, and I carried it around thinking that I must read it, and then eventually did this autumn, and spent a week going around going, IT'S SO GOOOOOD!!!! Why did noone tell me? And why isn't the fourth one out until June?!

on 2013-02-07 09:35 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Oh, oh, that is really cool! I did not think I was very invested in being from the north, but after reading this book I kind of was! And even if I hadn't been, how real and solid and gorgeously imagined it all was would have done the trick. Part of me wants to read the novel set during the miners' strikes with the miners raising raven-in-flight banners, you know? There is such a sense of place there.

on 2013-02-04 08:24 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] tempestsarekind.livejournal.com
I am just glad that someone else has had this problem with JS&MN! Everyone tells me it's the kind of book I ought to love, and I have started reading it several times, but haven't been able to get into it in quite the way that I'd need to in order to make it through all its several hundred pages. I've just been thinking about giving it another go, though, so this post was right on time for me.

on 2013-02-07 09:36 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
I think if you haven't got into it after the chapter with Norrell meeting the gentleman with thistledown hair, you probably won't. But if you haven't got that far, do stick with it! It is lovely.

on 2013-02-08 12:06 am (UTC)

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