In 2009, I made what at first seemed to be a very bad decision: I purchased the novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
The reason this decision seemed to be quite bad was that I bought this book for airplane reading: my girlfriend and I were going to be flying to Spain, and as anyone can tell you, carrying an absolute cinderblock of a book around international airports is about one of the most Sisyphean tasks one can imagine.
But I soon decided that I had, in fact, made the right decision. Because this book quickly shot to my list of the top ten fantasy novels of the 2000s.
This book is a masterclass of worldbuilding, especially because – though you don’t know it at first – it is, in fact, building two worlds: the historical Georgian, Austen pastiche world that you think you know, and the invisible world of alternate history supporting it. And what is most remarkable about the book is that you don’t see the author, Susana Clarke, actually working or straining during any of this: perhaps it’s the charm of the narrator, or the charm of the characters themselves, but the evolution of this book feels perfectly, immaculately organic.
While at first the novel seems to be an examination of class, status, and power in Georgian England, a vast, dark shadow suddenly seems to bloom from beneath it, and you realize that hanging in the background of all of the novels’ events stands a character whose peripheral references make his distant presence all the more fascinating and disconcerting: the mysterious Raven King, whose inscrutable actions in the Middle Ages reshaped the history of England, and the world.
When the novel works at its best, the two worlds – Georgian England and Fantasy Magic – compliment one another quite marvelously. This is very much a book about power, and the manner in which people use it unwisely: just as the cruel, capricious, and indifferent are propped up by the social structures of Georgian England, the monstrous, savage – but deceptively beautiful – lord of Fairie known only as The Man with the Thistle Down Hair is supported by the structures and strictures of vague, incomprehensible magic.
This is, in my opinion, fantasy at its best. It awes and fascinates us with its mysterious unknowns, then directs that awe and fascination inward, making us rethink ourselves. And this element, and the invention of a vast, mysterious history, were two huge influences on my novel City of Stairs. I wanted to create a fantastical version of the Cold War, in which two large nations are locked in constant struggle; but I also wanted to slip beneath it a whole realm of fantastical, confusing, and terrifying history.
The people in City of Stairs, on both sides of the struggle, do not know their history, and do not know who they are. This is because about 80 years ago a man succeeded in killing the gods, and when they died, everything they created vanished with them, including whole buildings, walls, bridges, and cities. In a handful of hours, an entire way of life vanished, leaving the survivors to pick up the pieces: both literally and figuratively, as everyone is left with only fragments of history describing their past way of life.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was something of my guiding star when writing City of Stairs, and I’m not afraid to say it. I even wanted to use footnotes for part of it (my editor wisely talked me down). I kept coming back to that book, puzzling over it like a puzzle box, wondering exactly how Clarke managed to fit all these pieces inside and make almost all of them work.
But, I also have very personal reasons for liking this book.
As I told you, I purchased this book for a trip to Spain with my girlfriend.
However, my overall intentions with the trip were to propose to her, and bring back a fiancée.
I’d bought a ring, rolled it up into a tight little envelope, and hid it away in a pair of bright red Argyle socks. These socks, naturally, didn’t leave my side during the 18 hour trip to Madrid. My intention was to use their contents in Barcelona, where we were to spend three days.
On the first day it was sunny, about 78 degrees, and all walks in the park were gorgeous and inspiring.
Naturally, I did not have the ring on me that time. It stayed behind in the suitcase in the hostel.
So, assuming that the second day would be similar, I tucked the ring in my coin-pocket of my jeans and decided I would have to improvise, but surely some time in Barcelona everything would get beautiful and I would know what to do.
The next day was 45 degrees, windy, and rainy. And it did not change.
It soon became apparent there was no room to improvise. So, at the end of the day, wet and cold and miserable, we decided to head back to the hostel. When the my girlfriend suggested we get a bottle of something I gallantly said champagne would do, imagining the old ring-in-the-drink trick would suffice. However, the only stores available were small, dingy places run by people very foreign even to Spain, and all their champagne was warm. So, stupidly, I bought a bottle of red, not realizing yet that dunking a diamond ring in red wine was not an especially bright thing to do.
This did not dawn upon me until my girlfriend was in the shower, trying to get some warmth back into her bones. Desperate, I spied a pack of Principe cookies she had bought just earlier, and, decided any proposal was better than none, I opened the pack, ate one cookie, then took out the second and stored the ring behind it.
The girlfriend then came to bed, and I read to her aloud from the book I was reading as I’d done the many nights before. (You can’t exactly watch TV in Spain if you don’t speak the language.)
The book was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
The chapter, oddly enough, was about a young magician who was trying very hard to get a girl to marry him.
I guess this was providence.
My girlfriend then picked up the packet of Principe cookies, saw that one was missing, briefly reprimanded me for stealing her cookies, and then ate the next one.
Mid-word, I paused, ready for the outburst of overjoyed squeals.
They did not come. I glanced over my shoulder at her, saw her thoughtfully chewing the cookie and staring into space, and wondered what had happened.
I shakily resumed reading, trying to conceal my confusion as she ate another cookie. Is it possible, I wondered frantically, that she could have eaten the ring? Isn’t that the sort of thing most people notice? I mean, you would think, wouldn’t you?
She then set the pack of cookies in front of me. I spotted the ring sitting on the lip of the package, in plain sight. She just hadn’t seen it.
Wondering what on earth I should do now, I began to have an idea brewing somewhere in my head. I finished the chapter with the one of the besotted young man realizing he could do magic, and then said, “You know, I can do magic.”
“Oh, can you?” she asked.
“Sure I can. I can do some very impressive tricks. Would you like to see one?”
I pounded my glass of wine, slammed it down, made some vaguely mystical motions over the pack of Principe cookies, and slammed my fist on the bed beside it three times, hoping the ring would just hop out. Naturally, as nothing had gone right that day, it did not, and only provoked loud outbursts from her, who feared my magic trick was just smashing a package of cookies. So I picked up the packet and the ring slid out into the palm of my hand.
With one cocked eyebrow oozing with smug confidence, I held it forwards and said, “So?”
I often feel my blind, stupid luck has only increased since.
Robert Jackson Bennett is the author of American Elsewhere, The Troupe, The Company Man, and Mr. Shivers. His books have been awarded the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson, and the Philip K. Dick Citation of Excellence. His latest, City of Stairs, is an atmospheric and intrigue-filled novel of dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, protean city. The novel is available now in the US from Crown Publishing and in the UK from Jo Fletcher Books.