Fri
Mar 4 2011 1:00pm

Best SFF Novels of the Decade: An Appreciation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna ClarkeWhen you reach a certain age as a reader you start to get a little jaded. You start to think you know what is and is not possible for writers to do with the crude  tools they have available to them, by which I mean words. You get a feel for what somebody is attempting before they do it, and you mentally score their chances of pulling it off. It’s like watching an Olympic diver on TV, where they announce what he or she is going to attempt, and the degree of difficulty, and you think, oh, right, that’s a slam dunk. Or alternatively: oh, Christ, there’s no way, that is simply impossible, this is a disaster, I can’t look.

And then, once in a while, the writer and/or diver proves you wrong, and succeeds in doing something that you would have bet your spleen was absolutely impossible—too difficult, and too wonderful. You will know when this has happened, because all the hair on your forearms will stand up absolutely straight with excitement.

That’s what happened when I began reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I read it before it was published—I was given an advance copy—and had no particular expectations for it. I knew nothing of this “Susanna Clarke.” The book begins with Mr Norrell announcing to a society of magical scholars—students of the theory and history of magic, but not its practice—that he is a real magician, a practicing wizard, a creature they had long thought to be extinct in England. The scholars don’t believe him. So Mr Norrell, who doesn’t like being doubted, stages a demonstration.

There’s a sly meta-level to this, of course, because I could see what Clarke was setting up, and I was as skeptical of her chances as the scholars were of Mr Norrell’s. The degree of difficulty was just too high. She was proposing, in her wry, elegant, deceptively powerful Regency prose, to show me magic being worked, right in front of my eyes, no jump-cutting, no smoke, no mirrors, not even a sequined assistant to hold the props. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t think she was a practicing wizard. The East German judge sat back and licked the sharp tip of his No. 3 pencil and awaited a belly flop.

It never happened. Instead, magic happened: in the book Mr Norrell brings the stones of an old cathedral, York Cathedral, to life. They speak, and each stone has its own voice and its own story to tell. In a mixture of old English and Latin, a statue describes a murder it witnessed centuries ago, that it was powerless to stop. The scholars stand around and gape. I gaped too. It’s the most beautiful and viscerally convincing description of magic being worked that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read plenty. Reader, picture my forearms at that moment: they were like cacti.

It’s not a fluke. Clarke does this again and again in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (and also in her book of related stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu), and not just for its own sake but in the service of a rich, thrilling, moving human drama. I understand it took Clarke 10 years to write Jonathan Strange, but it reads as if she reeled off the whole book as one glorious improvisation, lightly and freely, in the span of a week. It is, I believe, the first fantasy masterpiece of the 21st century. I await her next. Whether it takes her 10 more years, or 50, the wait will have been worth it.


Lev Grossman is the New York Times-bestselling author of The Magicians and, since 2002, the book reviewer for Time Magazine. His writing can also be found in the Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, Time Out New York, Salon, and elsewhere.

19 comments
trench
1. trench
I picked this book up once this poll had started. I saw how many early votes it was getting and I was intrested. I fell in love with this book, it is a marvel. I was so touched by these two characters and this lovely story she crafted around them. I can not recomend this book highly enough.

Also thanks to Tor.com for turning me on to it.
trench
3. J Tiffin
I totally agree. Bought the hard copy, a book that can stand for re- reading. Contains a quality not seen in much of modern writing, fine craftmanship.
trench
4. AgingComputer
By far the best book I read last year. Would recommend to anyone.
Bill Siegel
5. ubxs113
I think I may have a bit of rep as a hater on this site, and it may be well deserved, but it's only because I expect so much from my favorite genres. And this book completely delivers. I was introduced by my old roommate and I could not put it down. It reminded me of Terry Pratchett meeting Sharpe's Rifles in the absolute best way possible. Anyway, I cannot say enough good things about this book and eagerly await anything by Ms. Clarke.
Terry Lago
6. dulac3
Agreed. This is a wonderful book that works on both the narrative and meta levels that it incorporates. The characters are vivid and well-drawn; the voice is charming (esp. in the footnotes); and despite its size the story really does sweep you along.
Clifton Royston
7. CliftonR
What this book does so astonishingly is that from that first scene of in the cathedral (or rightly, from the prelude to it, the first visit to Mr. Norrell's house) the sense of the magical and numinous grows ever stronger; each time you think "this is the limit" it becomes only the beginning of more wonders.
trench
8. Archergal
And the way it builds to an ending is astonishing and wonderful. I've listened to it on audio several times, and it just doesn't get old.
trench
9. Harry Connolly
This was the only book I voted for in this poll, because to me it's the most amazing piece of writing I've seen in years.
Michael Grosberg
10. Michael_GR
A Totally amazing book: I have it both in papaer and audiobook.
If Susanna Clarke reads this or perhaps googles herself ad finds this, I urge her, please please write more, whatever it is, This was such a beautifully written book it made me read all the works of Jane Austen just to get some more of that regency era prose.
Clifton Royston
11. CliftonR
Michael_GR: You're aware that she wrote The Ladies of Grace Adieu: and Other Stories, right? It's short stories and so the book doesn't satisfy quite the same craving, but they do involve the same kind of faery magic and related events. (I particularly liked the one about the Duke of Wellington.)
Michael Grosberg
12. Michael_GR
CliftonR: of course, I have it in my library, but while it came out after JS&MN, the stories were mostly written before or during the writing of the novel, and as far as I know shw has not published any substantial offering since.
trench
13. a1ay
Echoing all of the above: but I didn't like the illustrations. (Why were they necessary anyway?) Will happily buy a new hardback edition to replace my secondhand paperback if the illustrations are omitted. PUBLISHERS TAKE NOTE.
trench
14. a-j
a1ay@13 - I also disliked the illustrations but greatly appreciated that at least there were some. The lack of illustrations in novels, even children's books, is a source of great sorrow to me. The Ladies of Grace Adieu has, of course, marvellous illustrations by Charles Vess.
T Lee
15. nettxzl
I too voted only for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in the poll. An extraordinary creation. The English language in it is sheer joy to read. A wonderful book for reading aloud. It's inexplicable to me that it should lose out to something like Old Man's War (no offence intended to the writer or fans of the latter).
trench
16. Nightsky
This book instantly wormed into my brain as if it had always been there. It thrilled me so much, in a way I remembered so viscerally from discovering something marvellous in childhood, that it's sometimes difficult for me to remember that it's less than a decade old.
trench
17. StefC
Read it six times since its release, and purchased a dozen times or more as a gift to friends and relatives. That is all you need to know.
Weijian Zhang
18. Weijian
I couldn't get into it and gave up after a few chapters. I do like the footnotes.
trench
19. herbert dickens
This first full length science fiction/fantasy novel by Suzanna Clarke is a first rate masterpiece of our genre. Without question, it was the best science fiction/fantasy novel of the decade. This is a wonderful story which has epic qualities. This novel was well thought out, presented
masterfully and concludes brilliantly with dark magical undertones.
This science fiction/fantasy novel ranks above everything written in the 21st Century.

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