December 1, 2008

Waiting For The Raven King

Susanna Clarke took over ten years to write her first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. So the five years I have been working on mine seem like a pittance.

It was time well spent. You can read any review and find the basic premise: England of the early nineteenth century watches as two magicians battle to revive the lost art of English magic. A cross between Jane Austen and The Lord of the Rings. A Harry Potter for adults.

It is much closer to Austen than to Tolkien. We open on the English countryside, at a meeting of the Yorkshire Society of Magicians. Except these are not practical magicians, but theoretical. The last English Magician who could actually do magic disappeared over 200 years ago. No, these magicians merely debate and squabble over what magic used to be like, back when the Raven King still ruled the north.

That is, until a gentleman from Hurtfew Abbey named Mr. Norrell, shocks all of England by proving himself capable of casting spells. He comes to London as the only practitioner of English magic, but soon gains a rival, the younger and more handsome Jonathan Strange. Together they alternately excite and horrify London society as they battle to return English magic to glory.

The comparisons to Austen are just. Two qualities especially stand out as exemplary. First, is the description. The houses, the clothes, the manners, the social hierarchy, all are explained in rich detail. A delight and a humor gives the entire affair a serious levity. The greatest effort is made to infuse a narrative history into everything. The absence of magic can only be fully appreciated when juxtaposed with all the memories of England's glorious past. An example:
Upon the instant, bells began to toll. Now these were nothing more than the bells of St. Michael-Le-Belfrey telling the half hour, but inside the Cathedral they had an odd, far-away sound like the bells of another country. It was not at all a cheerful sound. The gentleman of the York society knew very well how bells often went with magic and in particular with the magic of those unearthly beings, faeries; they knew how, in the old days, silvery bells would often sound just as some Englishman or Englishwoman of particular virtue or beauty was about to be stolen away by fairies to live in strange, ghostly lands for ever. Even the Raven King--who was not a fairy, but an Englishman--had a somewhat regrettable habit of abducting men and women and taking them to live with him in his castle in the Other Lands. Now, had you and I the power to seize by magic any human being that took our fancy and the power to keep that person by our side through all eternity, and had we all the world to chuse from, then I dare say our choice might fall on someone a little more captivating than a member of the Learned Society of York Magicians, but this comforting thought did not occur to the gentlemen inside York Cathedral and several of them began to wonder how angry Dr Foxcastle's letter had made Mr Norrell and they began to be seriously frightened.
Second, even more impressively, is the way she uses character to drive the story. These are characters in the fullest sense of the word, each with his or her own idiosyncrasies. The heroes are not trying to save the world. The villains are not out to do evil. An excessive pride afflicts every male character of a certain social standing, almost as an afterthought. Clarke wants us to know that to be a gentleman in the nineteenth century means being elevated to a place of privilege that has nothing to do with your character, and that elevated status makes it impossible to escape a heightened egotism. The main antagonist, the man with thistle down hair, is a fairy, and so his motivations and ideas about right and wrong are quite foreign to us, but nothing in his character is especially malicious. He cannot help his capriciousness any more than Mr. Norrell can help his infuriating pettiness or Strange his melancholy temper.

Casting his shadow over the whole affair is the Raven King, the long departed king of Northern England who was the greatest magician to ever live. Legends of his exploits abound. Clarke has created an entire mythos, a lattice of folk tales and memories and place names and even whole geographies that have been left behind by John Uskglass, and everyone lives in either fear or expectation of his return.

Like Don Quixote and other massive epics of their ilk, the story is filled with digressions, interludes and side stories, not to mention a copious amount of footnotes. Every character has a story to go with him or her, and every story is filled with character. She allows the story to meander over its first two thirds, as we become fully immersed in this world, and then drives it to a furious conclusion.

Every one of you should read this book.

1 comment:

Clark said...

Glad to hear you finally made it through only one full year after me. And thank you for turning me on to Suzanna Clarke in a round-about way. I was listening to Jonathan Strange again on my Mom's iPhone when she visited Prague, and, being reminded of how much I liked it, I went back and read The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Her little fairy tales are like hazy childhood memories of secret places. The book reads almost like a companion to Smoke and Mirrors. I love how magic is described as "invisible windows opening all around". That's exactly what happens when I practice magic!