Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Author: Susanna Clarke

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Length: 948 pages, 308,931 words

Read: August 20 – September 10, 2011

Summary: Really good, really unusual book

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This is one of the best and most unusual books I’ve read in a while, although it’s not for everyone. As you can see it’s quite a tome, clocking in at 308,000 words! It’s set mostly in England during the Napoleonic Wars (first 15 years of the 1800s for historical dolts). It’s also written in a very clever approximation of early 19th century British prose. Think of it as Dickens or Vanity Fair with magic. Actually it’s a little earlier than either of those, but still.

This is not your typical modern novel. It doesn’t have a lot of action. It’s stylistic and archaic voice mostly “tells” (as in “show don’t tell”). But the voice is great, if you like that sort of thing (I did). It’s wry and very amusing, with a defined narrative tone. The voice gives the who book a kind of wry feel, as if we (the reader) are in on something.

It’s also a very character driven story. This is the tale of two magicians, the only two “practical” (i.e. real) magicians to surface in England for some centuries. It’s to a large extent about their quirks and their relationship. There isn’t a ton of action, although there is plenty of magic. There are copious and lengthy asides. Every chapter has several pages of footnotes on magical history! You can skip/skim these if you like.

The historical feel is really good. Most of the characters are “gentlemen” or their servants so their’s is a particular rarified world of the early 19th century British aristocracy. I know quite a bit about this era and it felt pretty characteristic. The Napoleonic Wars are well researched, but they aren’t front and center, serving more as a backdrop. This all has a very British slant to it, which is accurate from the British perspective. I.e. Napoleon is a bit of a bogey man. While the British felt this way, it was mostly propaganda. I’m actually a pretty big Bonaparte fan — he did a lot to shake up and form the modern era — even if he was a “tad” aggressive. The 19th century British Empire was itself staggeringly arrogant and well… imperialistic. But anyway…

I also liked the way the book handles issues of enchantment and perception. This is a very fairy oriented magic — as is appropriate to a historically based English Magic — and it’s treated deftly with a strong sense of the fey. Many of the characters are under strong enchantments, preventing them for hundreds of pages from realizing something which seems rather obvious to us readers. This is both fun and frustrating.

If the book has any problems (besides being a bit long) it’s that the end isn’t entirely satisfying. Things are not really explained to either the characters or the readers. They are wrapped up, but not clarified. So I had the feeling of a grand build up without appropriate payoff. But I did enjoy the journey. This is clearly one of those huge first novels that was like 10 years in the crafting — making it unlikely the author will every exactly repeat the phenomenon.

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Book Review: The Spirit Thief

Title: The Spirit Thief

Author: Rachel Aaron

Genre: Light Fantasy

Read: Dec 7-16, 2010

Summary: Ethereal fun.

 

Between a trip back east, mega editing on my own book, and another parental visit last week I only had time to read five or so novels in December, about a quarter of my usual rate.

Don’t confuse this fun little book with The Lightning Thief, which I also just read and reviewed. The SPIRIT Thief straddles a fairly unique line between totally straight up 80s fantasy and comedic fantasy the likes of River of Dancing Gods or Myth Conceptions. It’s not however as totally comic as those, and somehow seems a bit smaller and lighter (if that’s possible).

The voice is very good, and the opening scene brilliant. There’s a nice new magic system here, where every living thing has a spirit inside that wizards can bargin with, enslave, or what not. Like comedy fantasy Shinto. It’s not entirely evenly developed, but the book is at its best during the magic fights. Although they do have a certainly sketchy quality too them, where the action doesn’t feel entirely blocked out, but I still liked quite a bit of this. The master swordsmen are really nicely done, combining the intrinsic magic of the book with a slightly Robert Jordan-esque blade-master feel. There were moments that almost felt super cool.

The prose can be very wry, in a good way. Funny, without laugh out loud. A lot of this involves attributing emotion to inanimate objects, which given the magical system is perfectly in line. When it’s on, this is certainly very fun to read. But at the same time this levity makes it hard to take the characters too seriously, and certainly not their perils. So it works for and against. I found oddly marooned in a peculiar — albiet unique — tone.

For some reason it also reminded me a bit of Shattered World, one of my high school favorites. Probably because the protagonists is a thief. I maybe wanted it to feel more like that, but it doesn’t feel as big. Everything takes place in a fairly short time and place, and the stakes seem a little local. The light tone also works against the emotional intensity of the characters, and I for the most part feel that they existed to either service the plot, or like the author was more sure of their personality than the character. The villain in particular is of the “i’m very bad, and very mad, and bad at being mad” sort.

So overall I would call the book a snack. But a tasty one.

Book Review: Tropic of Night

Tropic of NightTitle: Tropic of Night

Author: Michael Gruber

Genre: Supernatural Horror Thriller

Read: Spring 2010

Summary: Very good.

I read this book both because it was represented by an agent I was interested in and because it loosely fit the ill-defined cross-genre of my own novel: Supernatural thriller with realistic style and magic. In fact, in this book it’s not even 100% clear that the magic is intended to have actually happened — but I like to think it did. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here, particularly to my taste. There are three points of view, and not all are as good. One is the female protagonist, a former anthropologist hiding out in Miami from her murderous African shaman ex-husband. The second is the same character, but told in the format of journals written during her field work in Siberia and Africa. And the third is a Miami Cuban-American police detective investigated a series of horrific murders in Miami (perpetrated by the nasty shaman of course). I loved the detective, his investigations of the ritual crime scenes, and the bit of Cubano Miami flavor . The present action protagonist was okay, and the journals were intermittent. When they got into the magic stuff they were good. What I most loved about this book was the creepy and very realistic feel of the mostly Yoruba based shamanistic magic. Overall I enjoyed reading it, but the book could have benefited from some tightening up. The detective investigating this awful ritual crimes was very good too. If you like murder procedurals, and you like creepy well researched voodoo-esque magic, then give this a read.