raven: (misc - inside the box)
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.)

spoilers )

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

October 2017

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