Thursday, 24 March 2005

do I have to tell the story of a thousand rainy days


"Centuries ago, when magic still existed in England, the greatest magician of them all was the Raven King. A human child brought up by fairies, the Raven King blended fairy wisdom and human reason to create English magic. Now, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he is barely more than a legend, and England, with its mad King and its dashing poets, no longer believes in practical magic.

Then the reclusive Mr Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey appears and causes the statues of York Cathedral to speak and move. News spreads of the return of magic to England and, persuaded that he must help the government in the war against Napoleon, Mr Norrell goes to London. There he meets a brilliant young magician and takes him as a pupil. Jonathan Strange is charming, rich and arrogant. Together, they dazzle the country with their feats.

But the partnership soon turns to rivalry. Mr Norrell has never conquered his lifelong habits of secrecy, while Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous magic. He becomes fascinated by the shadowy figure of the Raven King, and his heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens, not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear."

As a bibliophile, I enjoyed this book before I had read a single word: it is an 800 page hardback and has a pleasantly tactile dust jacket with a ribbon sewn into the spine for use as a bookmark. This attention to detail is presumably, at least in part, meant to conjure up the image of a book that would not look out of place in the library of a Nineteenth Century gentleman. This is appropriate because the book is set in post-Enlightenment England, where the dusty, scholastic world of the theoretical magician is about to be torn asunder by the return of practical magic to England.

This book has been much trumpeted as the "adult Harry Potter", and I suppose it has some similarities in the way that the author weaves a world of magic into the fabric of the familiar world. Real historical events and characters make regular appearances in the plot: we see Wellington victorious in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, where the intervention of Jonathan Strange proves as influential on the course of the battle as the British Infantry squares. We also meet Lord Byron in Italy and are witness to the madness of George III (madness in fact becomes a key plot device, as mad people are able to see the fairies that the rest of us cannot...)

It's about magic then, but that's where the similarities with Harry Potter end. Make no mistake, this is a cracking read. The prose style is of an altogether different class to the best that JK Rowling can manage, and there's none of the leaden dialogue that litters her books either. I hesitate slightly to say it, but I think there are touches of the slightly ironical styles of Austen and Thackery as we watch the ritual-bound dance of manners that takes place in the drawing rooms of the English aristocracy. Mind you, all of this would be pretty irrelevant if the story was no good - 800 pages would be something of a long haul if pretty prose was all the reader had to admire. Luckily for us then, there is a gripping plot thread that runs from the start of the book through to the very end, involving a pact with a malevolant Fairy King... but the author is in no hurry to get us to there, and we are allowed to wander with the characters through several entertaining cul-de-sacs that add depth and realism to the author's world, and help us to savour her creation.

This is one of those books where when you try to explain the plot to someone, they make a face at you because:
a) it's quite hard to explain an 800 page book in a sentence
b) some people will never, ever want to read an 800 page book
c) some people will never, ever, under any circumstances want to read a book about magic and fairies

(or all of the above)

I loved it. I was hooked from the moment the first statue came to life in York Minster through to the very end. This is the best book I have read in a while, and the 800 pages flew by. One of those books you enjoy so much that you are almost sorry to have finished it.

What next? hmmm.

Not sure, but there are few things as sweet in life as the anticipation of the next book. The literary world is my oyster. Dickens then? Chaucer? Some Shakespeare?

Nah. Nothing so highbrow (always tomorrow, eh?)

Mark Radcliffe's autobiography I reckon (or possibly, in honour of Yoko, "You Shall Know Our Velocity" by Dave Eggers)

Onwards and upwards, Rodders.

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