Jane Austen meets The Prestige . . .
Somehow, even after reading through all 782 pages of this book, I still forget what the actual title is. And when I do remember it, I always add "The Strange Case of . . ." at the front. Perhaps because at times the protagonists seem closely related to Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, given that they all come from the same gaslamp-burning family.
This is one of the fattest books I've ever read. Not since The Host have I wondered how a book got through the publishers without a squeeze and a trim. Not to say that a pillowy book is a bad thing. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (I had to double check the title again) is a slow burn from the start, announcing in the first chapter that it is heavy on bumbling charm and airy on plot. As a result, there is a lot of page puff. Much of this puffiness is quite flavorful, and if you read it as slowly as its own pacing, the misted-alley atmosphere and Dickensian wit is easy to savor on the tongue.
This is a curl-up-on-rainy-afternoons read. You almost feel obligated to brew a cup of chocolate before dipping in. I say dip because there's not enough depth in this book for a dive. And while I truly enjoyed the candy-creamed cleverness and drily foppish humor, I wish the story could've used its witty premise as a launching pad for something greater rather than an amusement to eternally chuckle at.
Clarke's world-building is a delicious blend of absurdity and restraint. Placing magicians in a Jane Austen society is nothing short of brilliant and provides countless opportunities to explore the ettiquette and social obligations of a practical magician. It becomes hilarious when you realize most of the characters are more concerned with social decorum and scandalous reputations rather than evil forces and underworld kingdoms. The magic is witty and often humorous (one magician does a spell that makes the published works of his rival disappear--preventing him from becoming a best-selling author). But the magic never really takes on a life of its own, remaining politely decorative rather than destructively organic.
And therein lies the main problem. The conflict of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is not threatening enough. It is too underdevloped and restrained to pose any real danger to the protagonists, and when it finally does, it's too little too late. While the idea of a fairy trickster holding souls captive in an enchanted mirrorland sounds intriguing, it's portrayed as no more threatening than an obnoxious neighbor interrupting poker night. Inconvenience and annoyance ensues rather than destruction.
About halfway through the book, disappointment struck when I finally understood that nothing THAT bad was ever going to happen.
But even if the skeletal plot doesn't carry all 782 pages, some of the characters do. Mr. Norrell, Duke Wellington, Childermass, and the Gentleman are marvelously developed with delightful interactions personality flaws that you wish never end. And while Jonathan Strange remains uninteresting until he purposefully drives himself mad, he's a competent blank slate for the colorful characters to bounce off of.
But characterization is a mixed bag when you consider the horrifically one-noted Stephen Black--a character so dull that you wonder why so much page time and plot twisting is dedicated to him--as well as the nonexistent personalities of every female character, spellbound or lucid.
Yet while it meanders through the uneventful subplots of too many secondary characters, the book still succeeds with what its primary focus was in the first place: gray-skyed atmosphere, brainblowing imagery, and bumbling British humor. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell's magic sparkles in small moments, rather than the book as a whole.
Highlight: A cameo made by Lord Byron
Lowlight: The Raven King