The novel had one of the worst covers I’ve ever seen on a professionally published book. It’s solid black with the title in white text. I suppose they could have gone that extra step and had the title in black text, but the effect was pretty much the same, it could have been a book about anything or nothing. Add to that a page count that made it feel like a dictionary when you picked it up which inspired you to promptly set it back down. But once I got around to reading it, several years after it came out, I was enthralled.
The BBC production is very good. Tons of sets and costumes and very good special effects. The actors are mostly generic looking British types with only one or two familiar faces. The tale is a long and drawn out one. The BBC does a good job of capturing that sense that surely something will happen soon, but when it does, it’s not all that amazing.
Our hero is Jonathan Strange, a Magician in an era where Magic has fallen out of favor-the Napoleonic Era to be precise. Here we find Jonathan rubbing elbows with Wellington and doing his bit in the war. But that is a mere side issue. The villain here is not Napoleon, but an Elven demon who makes a pack with the other Magicain in the tale, Mr Norrell.
Once upon a time there was a man called The Raven King, who is mentioned in passing by the evil Elf and the two Magicians, he was in change when Magic was widely used. But that was long ago-three hundred years as we are constantly reminded. Now we have very few people who can use magic, primarily Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel, but also one or two others. Mr Norrell has amassed a vast collection of Magical Books, which he hordes like a miser. Jonathan has only one book and has to beg Norrell to let him read others. It isn’t clear why no one now practices magic or why these two have the ability to do so. The books contain spells and histories and ways to summon things.
Running through the heart of the story is the Fairy King and his obsession with a couple of humans. The Prime Minister’s wife and butler. The Gentleman forces them to travel with him to his home, where they are made to dance while they sleep in our world. He tells the butler he is a King and forces him to wear a crown and carry around an Orb and Sceptre. Whenever they try to ask for help, they find that they can only speak in nonsense.
This is a world much like our own, but also radically different. It’s a kind of steampunk magic story, an alternate history where men can do all manner of odd and often useless magic. We are told many times that there are only two Magicians, but then watch as others preform magic of one sort or another. It’s a world where we never know the rules, but clearly, there are rules.
I remember being a bit disappointed by the ending of the book, but being overall satisfied with this incredibly detailed world and the logic of what happens to Norrell and Strange. I like what the BBC has done with the story.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a slow tale. There is a feeling all along the way that something should be happening which isn’t. These oh so polite people take their time with all that they do and say. The result is we are forced to spend the time to get to know the world and its inhabitants. The payoff for those that hang in till the end is well worth the effort. Damn, that last episode was good.