This is not a review of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Partly because it doesn’t make sense to review a bestselling, prize-winning novel from three years ago. From thirty years ago, yes, or three hundred (if they were giving prizes to fiction back then–maybe the imprimatur counts), but not three years. People are still running around telling each other how wonderful the book is, and that’s mostly what a review by me would say. It really is a stunning synthesis of folkloric fantasy and the 19th century English novel.
There were a few related worldmaking issues that bothered me while reading the novel, though. Rather than let them simmer in my subconscious and cause serious mental illness (again), I thought I’d talk through them here, with the spoilers, the carking and the quibbling hidden behind a cut for the convenience of readers who would prefer almost any fate rather than reading this stuff.
It’s a tricky business for anyone but the worldmaker to distinguish between worldmaking choice and worldmaking error in a given imaginary world, so maybe the problems I mention below are not problems. Maybe my complaints are the sound of The Reader Not Getting It.
But I was troubled by three things in Clarke’s novel, all of them relating to human magic.
First, I found the world oppressively Anglo-centric. If magic existed, could it really be restricted to England alone? Is there really no human-operated magic in the other parts of the British Isles, in France, Italy, Germany, Russia–anywhere else in the social cosmos of the novel? This does indeed seem to be the case in the world of Jonathan Strange, which makes it a very strange world indeed.
Second, I found myself underwhelmed by the wonders Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange performed on behalf of England toward the end of the Napoleonic Wars. At one point Mr Norrell creates an illusion which keeps the French fleet bottled up in Brest. Well, in our world, the British navy already had the upper hand of the French (and others) at sea, and was so used to having it that they were shocked by a few losses to the US Navy in the War of 1812. It’s not clear that the situation is any different in the world of Clarke’s novel, so Mr. Norrell just seems to be helping people who would have won anyway without his help. Similarly, and more intensively, Jonathan Strange takes the field to assist Wellington in the Peninsular Campaign and the Battle of Waterloo. He does a number of remarkable things (more of this below) but what it adds up to is a result identical to that of consensus reality: the same battle with the same victor. This gives a rather weightless, pointless quality to the works of these English magicians: the story is about them, but they are not necessary to the story (at least not in these stretches).
These two issues point in the same direction. If Napoleon had corralled a couple of nascent sorcerers of his own (Gionata Straniero and M. Norrelle?), then the focus could still have been on the English magicians without the world being improbably Anglocentric and the English magicians would have been more important in their own story, conducting a secret war on Britain’s behalf behind the world’s magic curtain.
And the third issue overlaps with the first two. It is not clear that there is any cost or effort involved in performing most of the wonders that the English magicians do perform. There is much talk of study, intensive study, but the magician who studies less (Jonathan Strange) is clearly more powerful, and toward the end of the book very many (English) people are performing magic more or less spontaneously. Jonathan Strange relocates Brussels temporarily to North America for the convenience for the Duke of Wellington, then puts it back again. Clarke doesn’t actually describe Strange buffing the fingernails of his left hand while he performs this miracle with his right, but she might as well: there is no sense of a price being paid, of laws or principles being followed or flouted.
In this novel, human magic is a magic box out of which anything can come with no apparent cost. That might seem especially fitting, perhaps even redundant, but I don’t think so. Magic in a story must never be a magic box, a polymorphous convenience for the storyteller, or it loses its wonder and its storytelling point. Lester del Rey is alleged to have said, “When anything can happen, who cares what does?” (I think I saw this 30-some years ago in one of Thedore Sturgeon’s columns for the old Worlds of Fantasy magazine. To be entirely candid, I haven’t actually been able to track down the quote any better than that, so it may be apocryphal.) In other words, a magic box is not magical; it neither engages the audience’s intellect nor has an impact on their emotions.
Magic in fantasy must have some sort of restrictions or principles, stated or implied. The Law of Similarity. The Law of Contagion. The Law of Poise and Equipoise. The Law of Equivalent Exchange. The Rule of Names. The Law of Not Leaving the Dungeon without Acquiring the 88 Magic Keys of Princess Zelda’s Magic Piano. Something. Because “when anything can happen, who cares what does?”
N.B.: fairy magic in Clarke’s novel does not have this ungrounded, pointless quality. As tremendously powerful as the inhabitants of Faërie are, their power has limits, there are rules for its use, and consequences of its use. And, towards the end of the book, Strange does start to pay a serious price to extend his already-remarkable powers. So I’m not saying that Clarke wrote a good historical novel with some bad fantasy elements: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is equally impressive as a fantasy and as a powerful recreation of the 19th C. novel. But this flawed treatment of human magic sometimes lends a little sponginess, a little implausibility to her worldmaking.
Cark, cark, quibble, cark. You can see why I put this behind a cut.