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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Posted on by arlen

The rise of the mega-book.

Susanna Clarke’s first novel has a good sales run at the moment, and it’s up for Hugo. With some difficulty, I read it. Well, perhaps “read it” is too strong a term. At several points along the way, my eyes frankly glazed over, and I skipped pages. An actual page count of what I read vs what I skipped would reveal I probably read about 85% of it. And that was too much.

She seems to have a full-blown case of the disease that has been afflicting George RR Martin, JK Rowling, and many other writers today. I’m not sure what the exact cause of it is, but the result is The Big Book, the book that’s too long for the story it’s telling. I don’t know if they think readers want more pages to justify the higher price, or if the cutbacks in staff at the publishers are resulting in editors that are incapable doing their job because of time constraints, or what. But many books today are just too long.

This is an excellent case in point. This 782-page monstrosity shouldn’t have been over 500, and probably could have been less than that. The plot is rather good, as are the sub-plots, but they get so bogged down in detail that on more than one occasion I had to resist the urge to throw the book across the room. Come on, get to the point already!

The Big Book has always been with us, but not in such large numbers as today. Yes, Lord of the Rings was long. But, to tie the two together, JS&MN reads as if Tolkien had included all of the Silmarillion as footnotes in the Rings trilogy.

The basic idea here is that a mean-spirited magician (Henry Norrell) is wanting to be the only magician in England, when a young pup with some talent comes up; Norrell can’t resist keeping him around (you know the story, it’s as old as the hills) and Things Develop. Mix in the idea of a long-disappeared English King that his subjects expect to return and let simmer.

This is generally a good dish to preprare, but Clarke has decided it needs to be garnished with a dry-as-dust academic tone, including footnotes that go on for pages(!) and all sorts of irrelevancies that serve mainly just to brag about the back story she’s created for the book. Yes ma’am, it’s a well-crafted deep back story, and you’ve certainly done your homework. But every good fantasy tale has one of those, trotting it out and putting it on display is tacky at best, and boring at worst. In the case at hand, it oscillates between the two poles.

I can’t explain why the book has sold the copies it’s sold; I haven’t yet got around to the other Hugo nominees, but this makes me dread going through the rest of them. If the art of writing is knowing what to leave out, then this book is truly artless.

Maybe I’m just being silly, but I expect the book to tell me a story, and hopefully through the story’s development learn something more about myself or the people around me. This book has a good story buried in it, struggling to get out, but the excavation process is painful, and frankly, not worth the effort. I can only recommend this book for those who think doctoral dissertations make good reading.

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June 2005
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