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.
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