Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Author: Susanna Clarke
Reader: Simon Prebble
Short Review: A gorgeously read version of a Hugo Award winning modern epic I absolutely love. Clarke’s novel is part Harry Potter, part Tolkein, part comedy of manners, and part historical fiction of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s long, detailed, engaging, and by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. Simon Prebble is a distinctly talented reader, with just the right tone and accent, but for one small niggling mistake that would bother only, well, me and a few of my friends. Settle into this book and cherish it as you would Tolkien or Dickens or Ovid.
Long Review: I’ll get the pip out of the way first. The word “sídhe” is important in the second half of the book. It’s an Irish word, and it’s pronounced “shee.” Prebble says “sid-hey” whenever he encounters the word, and it makes me want to strangle him just a little bit every time. I forgive him, he does it again, I forgive him, he does it again . . . you see how it goes.
Apart from that petty complaint, Prebble is a fantastic reader. He voices a myriad of characters clearly, imparting each with an individual voice and tone. One of the true charms of this book is the conflation of very proper English sensibilities and manners with improper, difficult to accept magic and magician’s idiosyncrasies. Prebble gets the tone just right, throughout. He hops from explaining the delicacies of a lady’s table manners or quiet reminders to her husband that he is monopolizing the conversation to a quasi-realistic description of a spell to revive the dead, and back again. His diction is gorgeous, which is of great importance to a work like this, and yet he changes pace and tone as the story demands, without ever seeming like a bad actor or over-excited kid. He’s a great reader, and I’ll be seeking out more of his narration.
Clarke’s book is an absolute treat. She’s clearly a careful researcher, and the sections describing the facts of the Napoleonic wars ring true. As do the sections describing fantastical, magical things that never happened during the Napoleonic Wars. She also sketches her characters well. Jonathan Strange is flawed enough that we like him but are frequently annoyed by him–good should never be too good to be real–and Mr. Norrell is infuriating right until we need him to redeem himself, and then he does. The women in the book are lovely and soft and loyal, but also strong and brilliant and dangerous when they need to be. The dozens of supporting characters are intriguing and seem to function independently and rationally, except when they’re mad. I would gladly follow the stories of The Raven King, Vinculus, Stephen Black, or Emma Pole through another epic.