Tag Archives: sense of humor

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel by Susanna Clarke.

Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell from Bloomsbury

I thoroughly enjoyed this hugely popular novel about supernatural magic and magicians in early nineteenth-century England. The descriptions of magic seem to suggest that the author has some first-hand experience of significant thaumaturgy, or perhaps good drugs; they present a sort of genuine psychedelia (“mind opening”), as contrasted with the hackneyed tropes of occultist and drug subcultures. But the sorcery is in many ways subordinate to the characterizations and interpersonal plots of the novel, which are rich and satisfying, showing a profound insight into just the sort of motivations and tensions that emerge among colleagues and competitors in magical craft.

Press reviews have attempted comparisons with many other authors of fantasy literature, as well as “literary” authors. (The book was not issued under a genre imprint.) I cannot help making two of my own. The story often reminded me of the deservedly lauded Little, Big by John Crowley. Although separated by the Atlantic Ocean and more than a century, it is easy to imagine Clarke’s and Crowley’s stories taking place in the same universe: the human and non-human dynamics of magic are similar, and the characters are equally vivid and engaging. The chief distinction between the two books is one not of scale, but of scope. Little, Big covers more time, but its concern is essentially a single household and family. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is oriented nationally, toward the condition of England and “English magic.”

The other resemblance that struck me was to Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Obviously, there is the “odd couple” of the titular characters, brought together for professional reasons, and subject to the stresses of difficult lives. But the deft use of metafictional elements in a historical framework, along with a vivid sense of humor, makes these two books into close kin. Unlike Pynchon’s protagonists, though, neither Gilbert Norrell nor Jonathan Strange is an actual historical person. While Clarke was perfectly willing to conscript Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington into her novel, the magicians are all thoroughly fictional. An odd consequence of this approach is that she offers many glimpses of a history of “English magic” from which have been deleted England’s various legended, alleged, and actual magicians: no Roger Bacon, no John Dastin, no John Dee, no Edward Kelly, no Robert Fludd, no Simon Forman—even Merlin barely rates passing mention. In their stead, she details with high verisimilitude the received histories and legends of such de novo characters as John Uskglass, Jacques Belasis, Gregory Absalom, and Martin Pale. And she single-handedly generates a bibliography of imaginary tomes that easily competes with the Lovecraft circle’s notorious catalog.

Early on in the book, I found myself nonplussed by Portia Rosenberg’s illustrations. They are charcoal renderings in a loose style, reminiscent of nothing so much as late twentieth-century children’s literature, putting them at odds with the archaic spellings, footnotes, and other period elements of the text. The drawings did not seem to manifest a creative imagination, other than at least one case (p. 632) in which there were details that uselessly contradicted the text. The fact that Clarke explicitly referenced caricaturists of the period, and at one point devoted an entire chapter to a story about the engravings prepared to illustrate Strange’s History and Practice of English Magic, just added to the sense of Rosenberg’s drawings as inappropriate and superfluous.

To conclude, I’ll offer some thoughts regarding the plot that might be considered spoilers. Somewhere past the midpoint of the book, the level of dramatic irony got so high that I was almost discouraged from reading on account of sadness for the characters. I also started to suspect that the story would ultimately be an account of how magic had been eradicated from England. Not only was I wrong in that suspicion, but I have seldom been so pleasantly surprised by a happy ending. [via]

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

Conan the Bold

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Conan The Bold by John Maddox Roberts from Tor Fantasy:

John Maddox Roberts' Conan the Bold from Tor Fantasy

 

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian was not often motivated by vengeance, but many of the other authors who have offered stories about that character have decided that a revenge plotline is the best way to get him his due share of violent deeds. Perhaps such writing is under the influence of cinematic revenge drama tropes. Certainly, both the 1982 Conan the Barbarian film and the otherwise quite different 2011 movie of the same title ground Conan’s quests in revenge for the murder of his family and the violent destruction of his home village. The novel Conan the Bold by John Maddox Roberts offers a similar narrative.

In this case, we fortunately avoid the non-REH and now-cliche murder of Conan’s own parents. Instead, we get a sense of his barbarian honor in championing revenge on behalf of a Cimmerian family and village where he was a guest (albeit one with a prospect of marrying into kinship). For an extra helping of vengeance, Conan’s principal companion for most of the book has her own parallel revenge motive that draws the two of them into collaboration. Much of the story is suspended around set piece battles, which suggest a cinematic imagination as much as the revenge plotline does.

Conan is very young in this book, and a little wanting in the sense of humor that Howard gave him, but that so few later writers have managed to keep. His dour determination is quite consistent. After liberating the captives of some slavers, he is told, “We do not know how to thank you.” And then, He shrugged. “I am here because there are some men I must kill.” He turned and walked away (229).

Given how early it is set in Conan’s career, this novel is still an awkward fit in the loose continuity established by Howard’s stories, let alone any more tangled one that might account for the contributions of later authors. It references the sack of Venarium, but has Conan leaving Cimmeria for the first time on a journey that takes him as far as southern Shem.

The diction of the text is neither jarringly modern nor affectedly antique, and the descriptions of sorcery are in keeping with the better efforts of various Conan writers. One might object, however, to such a youthful Conan seeming to have an informed aversion to wizardry, which he has hardly yet had the chance to experience. Roberts does succeed rather admirably at evoking the sense of deep layers of civilization and barbarism that Howard cultivated for his Hyborian setting, without a lot of name-dropping “lore.” The novel’s conclusion has a minimum of denouement, but it is well-crafted for all that. [via]

 

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.