The book looks rather intimidating with its white-on-black cover and 1000 pages. It looks like one of those virtuous, serious things that are supposed to be good for you. And all the bookshops were selling it so pushily that I felt a slight aversion to it before I’d even opened it. But Neil Gaiman said good things on the back cover, and I’d heard some vaguely good rumours about it, so I did open it after all.
I hadn’t expected it to be so much fun.
In two words, this is a book of English magic. Rather obviously, there are two magicians, called Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Although we actually meet them in the reverse order. I guess it’s because of this presence of magicians that the book is compared to Harry Potter… It could hardly be any more different from Harry Potter, in my opinion! Magic is just about the only thing they have in common, and a British author. I won’t make this into a “JSMN is not Harry Potter” post, but, well, this is a very different book – and quite a lot better.
All the basic parts of a good book are there: good plot, great characters, good language.
It’s a bit slow to take off (the first third of the book feels a bit longish) but when it does, it gets quite exciting. I spent most of this Sunday in the sofa reading it, because I didn’t want to have to put it down in the evening and wait a whole day before finishing it. It is a bit scattered, a bit like a clockwork – lots of fascinating parts that tick and turn. But in the end all the apparently erratic offshoots are gathered up and tied up very neatly. The ending is quite powerful – everything that happens, happens for the sake of one moment, everything leads to this, but you only see this after it’s happened. It is a bit too long, though, and some of the meanderings could have been cut out without any great loss. I’m hoping that she’s learned from this book and that the sequel (which isn’t explicitly mentioned but certainly seems probable) will be more concentrated.
It’s actually quite hard to point out what makes a book great rather than good… My respect for good book reviewers increases every time I try to write a post about a book I’ve read. I like to browse other people’s reviews before writing anything (but after reading). Good ones are hard to find; poor reviews, incidentally, are very easy to write, and the web is full of them. The good ones tell me something new about the book – the bad ones summarise the plot and say whether the book was good/bad and you should/should not read it, and that’s it.
Great books have life and variety. Much of the greatness of JSMN comes from the variety and intensity in it. It ranges from small-scale domesticity to muddy exhausting battlegrounds; from cosy wittiness to fantastical visions. It flows from the simple to the grand, without feeling inconsistent or disjointed.
Great books are often unique. Great books tell stories that no one has told before, or tell them in a completely new manner / tone. Books that fit neatly into a category are rarely great.
JSMN is unique in its take on magic. It’s about magic as a part of life. Unlike most fantasy books, it’s written in realistic style – instead of magical realism, this is realistic magic.
It’s about magic and how it fits into life. Magic is a profession – and like any job, it ranges from tedious and mundane to adventure, glory and exciting discoveries. Magic is a science – it’s a complex process that we don’t fully understand, but can learn more about if we study it. Magic, as any power, changes people and society – in the book’s world it plays, in a way, the role of industrialisation in our reality. There are hints in the book that magic will slowly start to erase barriers between social classes and make it possible for men to get ahead by virtue of what one does, not just by titles and money. But magic is also a powerful force that pervades everything in the world, more powerful than even the magicians at first can imagine, and the book ends with that realization.
Interestingly, most really different books in the fantasy / science fiction arena have come from Britain recently – Mieville, Gaiman, Clarke, Banks. In fact, JSMN is a quintessentially English book. Its language is very English, as is its humour, and the characters. It’s fun to read about people going to places that I know – I can picture the streets they walk in, the gray weather, the houses.
Several reviews I’ve read pointed out something I hadn’t conciously thought about – JSMN is very much about the character of the English and England as they were 200 years ago. There’s this sense of England being the centre of the world, and Englishness as the natural state of affairs. There is no mention of any non-English magicians, for example, and everyone who’s not English is seen and portrayed kind of like a curious foreign object. If you don’t like Englishness (some reviews complain about an excess of “stiff, English-backed male characters who disembark from horse-carriages and tug on bellpulls to call for their valets”) or historical novels then you’ll probably find this book rather boring and stiff.
All of this sounds frighteningly serious… the book is anything but. It’s thrilling, funny, beautifully written, and very enjoyable.