051. Review of GAME OF THRONES by George R.R. Martin. SPOILERS ABOUND.

I’m not really into writing reviews for each book in a series, but since this is the first novel, I will definitely do so — my comments for the other ones will be much more abbreviated (hopefully). Also, warning — SERIOUS, SERIOUS SPOILERS. I am not kidding.

Game of Thrones was something I wanted to read for some time, but it was so damn long that I never really got around to it. Finally, I obviously did. And I don’t regret it one little bit.

Of course, the book has its problems. The names, for starters, are unwieldy, and even Martin himself, I’ve heard, has trouble keeping them safe. I do understand completely that he’s trying to create a world, and in many high-born families, names are repeated over and over again due to tradition. This works in real life, but is very hard to pull off well in a book, because with such a huge volume of characters to begin with, there are too many repeated Jons, Roberts, Eddards, and Brandons. There are also too many names that are similar in sound: Jory, Joffrey, and Jorah come to mind, as do Varys, Viserys, and Aerys. I understand he was trying to build a world in which lineage and honoring via name is important, but in a book, it’s more important to distinguish characters from one another than it is to build a namesake chain.

Another problem is POV. I actually love the way the book is structured — a chapter given to each POV character in third person, jumping around from setting to setting. But the POV distribution is terribly uneven. The POVs in Game of Thrones are as such: Ned, Catelyn, Bran, Jon, Arya, Sansa, Tyrion, and Dany. Now, the problem I find with this is that the POV is heavily weighed towards Starks, and in fact, the only non-Starks are Tyrion and Dany (and technically Jon, but I consider him part of the family even if he IS a bastard, because he has the same viewpoint and up until a point, lived with them. Dany and Tyrion are the only two people who share a different “viewpoint.” What I mean by that is this: The Starks are loyal to the Starks. The Starks all fear and dislike the Lannisters and are loyal to the king. In the beginning of the book, every POV character except Dany & Tyrion are in Winterfell. By the middle of the book, Catelyn, Bran, and Jon are in the North and Arya, Sansa, and Ned are in the South. Only Dany is in a different location, and Tyrion may be in the North or South, but his perspective at least differs, in terms of philosophy and in terms of familial ties, to the Starks and Jon.

This is a problem for me for two reasons: 1) The book is too heavily weighted on the Stark side, and makes it feel like Dany and Tyrion are the odd ones out and 2) it takes literally FOREVER to get back to anything that Dany is doing. The same thing is true for any character, because it’s not like Ned narrates every chapter, but the problem is that Dany is the ONLY window into what’s happening in her area of the world, whereas when Ned is not speaking, Sansa is, and when Bran is not speaking, Catelyn is. I felt that the POV distribution was too uneven in that sense, and either Martin needed to up Dany’s parts a little more, or he should have included a second POV from her area of the world. I fear that in the next few installments, this problem will extend to Jon as well, because he’s now embarking on a very different sort of quest, and his setting and storyline will be like Dany’s: different than all the others. One POV character has already died, so he’ll have to be replaced, and I hope dearly it’s by Robb, but the problem is that will still leave for a highly uneven distribution. Alas.

Okay, problems aside: this book was highly addictive. Those are literally my only two issues with this entire book. The prose was good (I guess? I have no idea, I wasn’t even paying attention — and that should tell you a hell of a lot), and the characters (except Sansa. Dear god she needs to not narrate and also die) are engaging and interesting. Of course, I have my favourites (see: Robb, Tyrion, and Dany), but I don’t dislike many characters — at least from a writing perspective. What I mean by that is yes, Joffrey is a horrible human being, but I think he’s a good character. I do hate some characters and want them to die, but the only one I find really unengaging is Sansa, and unfortunately she gets a whole freaking POV. Sigh. The story is really well written, and the concept and world is totally immersive. Martin has a way of pulling you in, and then you get to an end of a chapter in the South, and you want to know what happens next — but then he takes you back to The Wall, and something else interesting is happening there. Sure, you itch to find out what’s going to happen in each storyline, but I didn’t feel that I was being cheated and kept from knowing things — no storyline was vastly more interesting than another. Of course, I’m particularly partial to Dany’s storyline, and I’m dying to know about the Others, but I also wanted to know what was happening in Catelyn’s journey, and how Ned and his daughters were faring in Lannister central.

The last thing I want to touch upon here is character death. I was shocked to find out who died. From a reader’s perspective, I was weepy and horribly mad, but from a writer’s perspective, I was totally appreciative. Here is a man that is not afraid to kill his babies. And he’s not doing it to piss off the reader, nor is he doing it for fun. He’s killing off characters that need to be killed for one reason or another, and isn’t shying away from the hard, cold truth of reality; that no matter how great or evil a person is, they will die eventually, and sometimes the people you love won’t live, and the people you think deserve death will still be sitting around long after the good ones are gone. So am I upset that Ned, Drogo and Lady die? Yup — you bet. Am I pleased Viserys kicked the bucket? Sure. But I think Martin knows what he’s doing and he’s doing it beautifully.

I’m terrified about the death toll in the upcoming books, but I have to read. I just do. And you should, too.

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048. Review of Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link

I’m a big fan of Kelly Link. She’s beyond imaginative, a unique and very talented writer, and I feel, sometimes, as though the essence of my writing and hers isn’t that much different. I absolutely loved her second collection, Magic for Beginners, and although I liked some of the stories in Stranger Things Happen, as a whole it didn’t have the same sort of impact that other book had for me.

I particularly loved “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” “Flying Lessons,” “Vanishing Act” and “Survivors’ Ball, or, The Donner Party.” But some of the others fell short to me. And even some of the stories I rather enjoyed had some of the same pitfalls I noticed in Link’s other stories when I first read Magic. One such pitfall is Link’s inability — or refusal — to wrap up most of her pieces. Not to say that everything should be neat and tidy with no loose ends, nor should everything work out perfectly and be completely comprehensible, because, as Link is clearly trying to show us, life isn’t that way. And if stories are meant to echo life, they can’t be that way either.

In some of Link’s stories — and in fact in a lot of them, particularly in this collection — it’s very hard to grasp the essence of the plot or of the story she is trying to tell. And although I don’t believe endings should be neat, I do think that the reader should be left with questions — not gaps in understanding. And sometimes, here, I felt that I simply wasn’t able to find the connective tissue or the point hidden underneath all those lovely words and brilliant ideas. I think sometimes, whether or not this is the truth or the way it’s conveyed to the reader, Link’s ideas are great but not quite complete. Half-baked. In the best way, possible, of course. I think some of her stories are novels and novellas yearning for expansion, and others are in need of pruning.

Some of her stories are delightfully odd, some of them are bafflingly bizarre. But I enjoy them. I get a feel for her characters, except when she deliberately makes things too confusing, like in “Louise’s Ghost” or “The Girl Detective.” I think if Magic for Beginners was fabulous, this book, her first book, was the work of an unpolished artist who hadn’t yet learned that there is a difference between keeping a mystery and an air of wonder about a story and deliberately withholding information that could help clarify the end result.

But more often than not, you get the point. There’s a feminist angle, a whole lot of fantastical elements that are meant to be enjoyed as much as they are to inform about some aspect of society or life.

I love Link. I really do. And I recommend her to anyone who thinks fantasy is stale. But I don’t know if I would recommend this particular collection in whole. Magic is my go-to, and it will remain that way.

045. Review of Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

Beautiful Creatures follows a typical YA trajectory: teen from a small, dull town encounters a brand new teen who’s not entirely human. But the cliché — for it is one — is twisted slightly: the narrator is a boy. This change might not seem like a big one, but for a YA book like this, it made all the difference.

Ethan Wate is a mostly believable sixteen year old from a small southern town, and he’s been dreaming about this mysterious, beautiful girl for quite some time before she shows up in school as the town recluse’s niece. I was afraid Ethan and the girl, Lena, would have that insta-connection you so fear to read in books of this sort, but thankfully that wasn’t quite the case. Yes, Ethan was instantly drawn to her; yes, they began liking one another a tad quicker than perhaps was necessary — but Lena resisted his interest for long enough that I was okay with it.

Lena, it turns out, is a Caster — basically a hybrid of a “gifted” teen, a witch, and an X-man. Casters have all sorts of powers, and Lena is more powerful than most. I thought she was perhaps a little too powerful at times. After all, most of the other casters have specific “gifts”: Ridley can persuade people to do anything, Ryan can heal, and Lena’s aunt can see multiple timelines at once. They all have the ability to do little things, like telekinesis, but sometimes I felt that Lena (who is called a Natural) had powers that weren’t so strictly defined as some of the others. She can control weather, which is her main power, but  additionally, she can make people forget things, make her instruments play themselves, manipulate fire, write on her walls as she thinks the words without lifting a finger — and for me, I didn’t quite understand how her limits worked, and why she could do certain things that perhaps others like her could not.

The plot is, more or less, about a curse that has plagued Lena’s family for centuries: most casters can choose their own destinies. On their sixteenth birthdays, they choose to become Light or Dark, and can never switch once they’ve decided. But Lena’s family members have their fates randomly chosen for them by a magical and ancient book instead, which means that on their sixteenth birthdays, they become one or the other at random — whether they want to or not. Lena’s sixteenth birthday is approaching, and she fears she’ll go Dark.  She and Ethan spend much of the book trying to figure out how to break the curse so she doesn’t end up on the Dark side.

Sometimes Lena gets repetitively emo about this, as is bound to happen whenever YA books feature some sort of unavoidable and unwanted destiny. She often pulls away and says “you could never understand!” in that horribly melodramatic way that makes you want to smack her. It’s irritating at times, yes, but it’s not quite as intolerable  as if she’d been the narrator. Both characters were likeable, though I preferred Ethan immensely: Lena is a bit of a one note at times. I understand that people fear and dislike her at school because she’s so different, but she is victimized constantly throughout the book, and consequently becomes mopey and does the classic pseudo-noble shut-out too often for my tastes (“you should go be normal so you shouldn’t be with me, Ethan!” or “I don’t want to hurt you so I’ll stay far away from you for a while, Ethan.” For a full repertoire of this annoyance, please see the Twilight series).

Ethan, as I said, is mostly believable. He’s got strong convictions, he’s sensitive, he’s loyal, he’s compassionate, he’s even-tempered, and although he’s had great loss in his life (his mother died before the novel’s beginning) he deals with it in a believable manner. Sometimes, though, Ethan’s too “big” of a man. I understand he’s a good guy, but for someone who consistently comments on how beautiful Lena is, he never thinks of anything but kissing her or being in love with her — there are no other sexual thoughts or desires. I’m not of the mindset that teenaged boys  always think about sex, but in approximately 500 pages of mostly dating a beautiful girl he is obsessed with and trades his popularity to be with, he never has any of those desires or impulses at all. He’s also too good in other ways. While I completely understand that he is loyal, compassionate, and he sticks up for his beliefs, he is also a high school student. When everyone in his school turns against Lena (which is for the duration of the whole book), Ethan chooses to let himself be ostracized with her — even though these people are the people he grew up with, and even though it’s a lonely situation. I don’t believe that he’d just be completely and utterly okay with this. He never regrets it, never wishes he could hang out with his old friends, never feels torn between Lena and the people he’s spent his whole life with. I find that Ethan is completely and utterly above reproach, that he’s too good and too faultless, and that he never makes a single mistake when it comes to a question of character.

There are, of course, some clichés in the book: among others, the premise is typical of YA fiction, the book’s peopled with southern townsfolk who are completely and utterly prejudiced against anything new, and there’s a stereotypical black “mammy” character — Ethan’s wise, caring, and loving housekeeper, Amma. But as stated before, the authors made little changes that really made all the difference. Swapping the protagonists’ genders worked well for me. And although Ethan’s housekeeper, Amma, still held on to some clichés of the black “mammy” character, she had some really interesting character quirks, which made her all the more real. I love that Amma is obsessed with crossword puzzles, and that every time she reprimands Ethan, she uses a “crossword” word, spelling it out and giving him the definition. This is original, smart, and gives her the extra pizzazz she needed, the twist to make her character original.

The writing had a great tone, a voice that was all Ethan’s (although at times it was clear that the authors were women writing a boy — not too often, but it emerged every now and then), and the prose was smooth, fast-pasted, and well-done, minus one or two sections when it got clunky due to the amount of information the authors loaded into one scene.

I was intrigued by the end — so sad to see Macon die, but pleased to know that the book had real, honest-to-goodness stakes — but am still somewhat suspicious of Lena going neither Light nor Dark, as well as suspicious of what the next books in the series will entail. Ethan’s obviously still going to be around (and I do hope he continues to narrate and it doesn’t switch to Lena’s perspective), and I’m crossing my fingers that the relationship between them will evolve in a natural and believable way, and that it doesn’t dissolve into Twilight or The Mortal Instruments-esque forced relationship drama. But I’ll certainly be reading the next installment regardless!

041. Review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.

I’ve heard many things about Bradley’s series, all of them good. And unfortunately, it took me over a year and a half to pick it up. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is an amateur sleuth novel, following the escapades of eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce. Flavia lives with her two elder sisters and father in a decaying manor, and she is understandably quirky and a bit eccentric. After a murder occurs in Flavia’s yard, she decides it is her duty to investigate the murder herself.

Sounds simple. But the mystery is pretty complex, involving not only the murder of the mysterious stranger in the cucumber patch, but a murder that occurred thirty years prior — one that Flavia’s own father might have been involved in. Not to mention that there is also theft

There are a lot of things I loved about this book. The first is obviously Flavia. She’s precocious, brilliant, amusing, and passionate girl, and although that’s kind of typical for these kinds of novels, the narration is charming. I also thought Flavia’s love for chemistry was very unique and interesting — as was her particular love of brewing poisons and experimenting on her elder sisters. I also loved her penchant for fibbing, for her ability to charm, for her sharp wit and ability to extract information from people, her investigative skills, and her exuberance and general enthusiasm for life.

I need to take a quick break to gush about the names in this book; I am totally in love with the names Bradley chose for his characters. Horace Bonepenny? Fabulous. Ophelia, Daphne, and Flavia de Luce? A name nerd’s dream. And let’s not get started on the fact that Flavia named her bike Gladys. And — god, every name in this book is brilliant.

My love for the names in this book aside, the writer put in a lot of intriguing hobbies into the book. There’s chemistry, philately, and magic tricks all in one book, all of which are essential to the plot, and the content never feels excessive or overdone. It just feels — quirky and rounded and at every turn there is something interesting to learn about.

I didn’t feel that any character was a stock character. Although some characters were only in the book for a very short amount of time, they all had a real presence, and while I’m sure characters like Dogger or Mrs. Mullet could be fleshed out more, there are also currently two other books in the series, and I’m sure each of these side characters will get their time in the limelight. But even small characters like Dr. Kissing and the dead mother, Harriet, have distinct personalities and flavours. I have to say that I quite loved the Inspector; his relationship with Flavia was certainly amusing, and I’d love to see him more. Flavia’s elder sisters are both not very good sisters (they’re no Cinderella siblings, but they all rag on each other and are horrible to each other — but it’s obvious that beneath all that animosity, there is a loving bond. And Daphne and Ophelia (or Daffy and Feely) are completely different in personality).

The writing is fast-paced while also being intelligent; I felt like I was learning along with Flavia, and also learning about hobbies and subjects that I didn’t know much about or had forgotten about. I never felt that the writer was talking down to the reader, nor did I feel that I was being bombarded by unnecessary information, the way I sometimes do when I read Chuck Palahniuk novels. It’s beautifully crafted with perfect pacing, and there’s never a dull moment. The mysteries have so, so many twists and turns!

My only real critique? The fact that Flavia narrates. She is a brilliant, brilliant child. There’s no doubt about it. But even someone that smart does not speak so beautifully at that age, especially because while Flavia is certainly gifted, she is no genius. Nor is her father. And when they’re both speaking (i.e. Flavia’s narration and the Colonel’s long story about the murder of Twinings) they sometimes have too lovely descriptions. Of course much of the narration feels authentic. But sometimes there are just glimpses of the authorial voice, and when that happens, I get pulled from the story for a second, because I just know that nobody telling a story to their daughter while in prison would say something like “mediocrity … was the great camouflage; the great protective coloring.” It’s too perfect. And sometimes Flavia says things that are a little too poetic and mature for who she is. But this wasn’t enough to be a problem for me — I enjoyed it even despite that.

I’d recommend this book to pretty much anyone. Whimsical plots, characters and language? An eclectic cast of characters? A fun mystery that’s not too light nor too dark, but has elements of both? A tone to satisfy readers of YA fiction and traditional mysteries, and literary fiction? This book’s got it. And I am very excited to read the rest of the series!

040. Book Review of Vampire Empire #2: The Rift Walker by Clay and Susan Griffith.

WARNING: SPOILERS.

The Rift Walker is a very good follow-up to the first novel in the Vampire Empire trilogy.

At the beginning, it’s a bit mopey and moves far too slowly. Adele is longing for her love (although, granted, I still think their love came about really instantaneously in the last book, and I would have liked a little more development of HOW they came to be that into each other; Adele really didn’t have as many struggles with the fact that the beloved Greyfriar was a vampire as she should have, and it all seemed a bit too easy). She is waiting to be married, and dreading her union with the boisterous Senator Clark. She starts learning about the powers she’d discovered in book one, and it becomes clear that Adele is way more powerful than anyone could have ever imagined.

However, the book really picks up about a hundred pages in when on her wedding day, Greyfriar saves the day, pulling her out just before the wedding is truly finalized because his evil brother, Cesare, is planning to kill her. They escape Alexandria, eventually joined by Adele’s loyal guard Colonel Anhalt, and exciting adventures ensue! Murders, magic, political uprisings, secret identities revealed, and lots and lots of violent battles.

Like the last book, The Rift Walker has a great balance of romance, adventure, darkness, fantasy, steampunk, and just a little bit of humour. Unlike the last book, the pacing was a little off; the beginning was very, very slow, and could have used some whittling down, while the last half was completely action-packed; there were no dull moments, and the writers really know how to keep readers turning the pages.

The magic touched upon in the prequel gets a bigger part in this book. The concept of geomancy was much better explained, and I felt it was extremely creative and unique. I loved the idea of rifts, and the way the writers described the magic in itself. I do hope there’s going to be more of an explanation in the third book as to why Adele is so insanely powerful, though.

Which leads me into some problems I had. Some of them cross over from book one, while some of them are only issues that I really considered after beginning book two.

First: Adele is a little too powerful. She’s a brilliant Empress, and that’s what I like best about her character. She is charismatic, commanding, strategic, and knows exactly what she needs to do to motivate people and rally them. But the problem is that aside from being a genius at politics and also being the surprisingly powerful geomancer who puts all other geomancers to shame, she is somehow an extremely fantastic warrior woman who somehow has learned to do battle better than many other people. She knows how to fence absurdly well, and is a master of hand-to-hand combat. There’s no real reason as to why Adele is so great at everything; I cannot imagine that her upbringing, which seems exceedingly typical of female royalty, would allow for her to train her skills in battle.

Second: I absolutely adore the idea of vampires being a completely different species. But that poses a couple of problems. These problems are typical things that arise from vampire books, but in most vampire books they AREN’T problems, because in most mythologies, vampires have once been human and have died. One thing that almost always happens in these books and movies and TV shows is that the lead romantic vampire often identifies with humanity in some way; in Twilight, which I hate but still provides a pretty good example, the Cullen family becomes “vegetarian” because they seem to prefer humanity over other vampires. That makes sense, in a strange way; even though they are themselves vampires, they were once human, and identify more with that part of themselves than the monstrous part.

In Vampire Empire, vampires are a completely separate species from humans, like tigers are completely different than house cats. Same genus, different species. House cats don’t sit around wondering why they’re not like tigers. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense why Gareth wants SO BADLY to be human. Because … he never was a human. He never will be human. While I do understand why he might be fascinated by human culture, I cannot possibly understand how he could hope to be a human; how he could side with humans over vampires. I need a good reason as to why this is happening, why he’s fighting his kind secretly.

Third: I don’t like how quickly the whole situation between Gareth and Adele was resolved. I’m not talking about just the relationship; I’m talking about the fact that when Adele finds out that her growing powers can actually seriously hurt Gareth, even when she’s not intentionally using them, she just ups and says “Oh, okay guys, I guess I’ll never deal with my powers again, I’m just going to live with you forever and ever and ever,” and it literally lasts one paragraph or two. I cannot imagine that situation could even possibly have a solution in that short amount of time. I needed more depth there.

I loved a lot about this book, too; there are a lot of twists and turns in this installment; lots of betrayals, some unexpected deaths, and some forays into the more exotic aspects of the world the Griffiths have so deftly created. I especially enjoyed the fact that several other characters find out Greyfriar’s true identity in this one; it upped the drama and the stakes quite a bit. But it is also important to note that while the books so far are fun, well-written, and very compelling, some important aspects, like the motives or the whys, are somehow absent.

I’m looking forward to reading book number three!

038. Review of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I finished Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief last night and sat in the bathroom bawling my eyes out for ten minutes straight.

This book is utterly amazing. True, it seems like one of those books that EVERYBODY says is good, and therefore it seems like it should be overrated. But it isn’t. I challenge you to find anyone who doesn’t find this book incredibly compelling and well-written. If you can, I will write a romantic ode to Stephenie Meyer, who I hate with a burning passion.

The Book Thief, as you may very well know already, is a book set in WWII-era Germany. The protagonist, Liesel, is not Jewish, which frankly is a breath of fresh air. Don’t get me wrong — I do like literature about the Holocaust and its Jewish survivors. I’ve read plenty of it: Maus, Auschwitz and After, Number the Stars, The Shawl, and many, many others. But while these books are good in their own right, sometimes it gets to be too much — to be desensitizing. And to an extent, they are all the same (and for good reason). Sometimes, I want to read about that time period, and I want to read about the other side of the war.

And The Book Thief gives that. Liesel is German. Her brother dies and she is taken from her mother and sent to the town of Molching, where she is adopted by Hans and Rosa Hubermann, two full-blooded Germans who are just … wonderful characters. The novel tracks Liesel’s life in Molching, showing her everyday life, her life as affected by the war, the dangers and tragedies she encounters. But the greatest chunk of the book deals with the Hubermanns taking in a Jewish fugitive named Max.

The relationship between Max and preteen Liesel is incredibly fleshed out. It progresses beautifully — not, however, romantically, so don’t get any odd ideas about that — into this marvelous friendship that is kept secret from everybody except those in the Hubermann household. It’s so … touching. It sounds so lame to say that, but that’s really the only way it can be described. It’s a touching, beautiful friendship, and in fact, despite the wholly different dynamics of each relationship between each set of characters, all of the relationships are like this.

There is Rosa and Liesel, who base their relationship in insults and harsh words, but deep down there’s this unquestionable love. There’s Liesel and her best friend Rudy, who tease and taunt and challenge each other and work their mischief together, and who fall in childlike love together that is pure and simple and perfectly understated. There’s Liesel and the mayor’s wife, Ilsa, who begin their relationship in uncomfortable silence and which grows into an unlikely friendship predicated on tragedy and books. And there is, of course, Hans and Liesel — and Liesel loves Hans most. They have the relationship every father and daughter should have, and it is for this reason that the end is utterly heartbreaking.

There’s one thing I have not yet touched upon: the fact that The Book Thief is narrated by Death. And it is brilliant. Death does not believe in mystery or suspense, and thus he tells you flat out which characters are going to die and when. It does not soften the blow. Death has an odd, quirky, insight into everything, and his observations and narration are beautifully worked. Having never read anything else by Zusak, it is hard to tell whether this incredible wordsmithing is Zusak’s own personal style or whether it’s Death-as-narrator’s own voice, but he describes things in such an original, fresh, and unforced way. As a writer, every time I read a sentence or phrase like that, I thought, “Damn — how does he think of that?” Because it’s original but in a way that you realise it’s the absolute perfect way to describe it, but you could never have thought of it yourself.

Some great examples:

“Her voice was like suicide, landing with a clunk at Liesel’s feet” (391).

“Behind him, a building groaned and tripped” (433).

“His cool voice was unusually warm. Half-baked” (272).

“Rosa had a small rip beneath her right eye, and within the minute, her cardboard face was broken. Not down the center, but to the right. It gnarled down her cheek in an arc, finishing at her chin” (419).

 

All in all: you will cry at the end of this book. Do not read it in public. But do read it — it’s worth the tears.

037. Review of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

It took me years to read this book. One day, sometime in high school, my dad brought this enormous book home and said that it was critically applauded, was super popular, and that we should read it. Alas, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is incredibly long, and as a high school student with a lot of homework and a desire to not read immense tomes, I put it to the side and did not pick it up.

When I went home after graduating this year, though, I decided to read it — and I got hooked. This book is, granted, definitely not for everyone. It includes magic and other fantastical elements like fairies, but is too long, adult, and serious of a work to appeal to anyone who exclusively likes Young Adult — because Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is nothing if not mature and maturely written. It has quite an extensive and complex plot with a cast of nicely fleshed out characters, at the forefront of which are two magicians:  Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

There is so much to talk about in this book. But I suppose first and format is the way the book is written. It is not your typical quest-fantasy, and while the plot is very … well, plotty, and very present, the plot is presented in a very different way. It’s written like a history book — a very good, engaging, dynamic, and thought-provoking history book. It follows a very specific timeline, spanning over years. It includes many facets of the characters’ lives and work, and has a sprawling focus — that is, English magic.

This is really where the book’s first main brilliance lies: Clarke has created an alternate history of England, Europe, and occassionally America, in which magic has played a hugely influential role. Magic, in this book, has been around for centuries, but now only a few people, “theoretical magicians,” study it. Until Norrell and Strange come along, practical magic had not been done for centuries. In this history, it’s a well-established fact that our world is not the only one that exists; there’s also a fairy world, a hellish one, and perhaps others. This well-established history is often explained in footnotes, and because it is a blend of our own history and Clarke’s created one, real life personages come into play (including King George, Lord Byron, and Napoleon, among many others) but their actions and the outcomes of well-known events are changed slightly and tinted with bits of magic, bits of influence from Strange’s and Norrell’s magic workings.

The book is written in prose a little reminiscent of the old classics; the spelling of certain words, including “choose” (which is “chuse” in the book), and “scissors” (“scissars”) is authentic to the time period in which the tale takes place. As someone very attuned to spelling, I was a little irked at this at first, but then once I realised it was not a whim but rather the author’s attempt to make the text not a book about the early 1800s, but a book from the 1800s about the period, it ceased to bug me.

I must admit that I’m not usually one for footnotes, and originally, like the spelling, I found it a little annoying to have to read extensive paragraphs in background information and then return to my place in the “real” story, but the footnotes grew progressively more interesting and delightful, providing other additional little stories to flesh out the greater narrative.

In terms of the characters: They felt real to me. While I did not much like Mr. Norrell — he is so utterly pathetic, but then, that’s the point — I did see a real person in him. The women in the book, though not the main focus, were wonderfully written and distinct; Arabella Strange, in particular, was very compelling. There were no characters that I hated, no characters that made me think they could not possibly be real. The gentleman with the thistle down hair — who was never given a name throughout the novel — was delightfully maniacal, and gave such an incredible vision of fairy society that it was almost breathtaking. Vinculus, Stephen Black, Lady Pole, Childermass, and even some of the more mundane characters, like Sir Walter Pole and Lord Wellington, drew my interest and kept it.

Strange, of course, was my favourite character of the lot — I connected with him, wished so dearly for him to succeed, and, at the end, I felt satisfied with where he had ended up, though a little sad about how it had come to be.

It’s important to note that the episode with King George was one of my favourites, and that I wished we could have seen more of him — his madness was — can I even say this? — almost adorable, and certainly endearing. I enjoyed him immensely.

I should also make a quick note that the book is not fully serious. There are some great comedic moments, and Clarke really knows how to turn a phrase. Sometimes the wording is hilarious — I recall a brilliant sentence about “an elderly bunch of celery” that had been placed “promiscuously in close companionship” with charcoal, which had me laughing hysterically. Maybe I just think elderly celery is hilarious and nobody else does, but still.

I have very few negative things to say about this book. In fact, the only one I could really point out is this: while we get such a huge load of information about magic and magicians, and we see Strange and Norrell do a lot of it, I never got a very good sense of how the spells worked, or how Strange, for instance, moved rivers or produced illusions, or summoned the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. What was the process? I got the sense that there were incantations and rituals involved, but I wanted to see, at least once, how these spells worked. But it did not bother me — it was more a vague pricking of a question in the back of my head after I finished reading.

That said, I’d recommend this book to everybody; I think its size and subject matter is a little alarming to many people, and while I recognize it certainly is not everyone’s cup of tea, I did love it intensely, and would certainly read it again. All I can say is that I’m a little sad it sat unread so long on my shelf — but the wait was worth it.

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