Thursday, June 26, 2008

Audio Book: English Magic

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, read by Simon Prebble.

A weakness in a novel can become a strength in an audiobook. So it is that the massive JS&MN really shines in its audio form. The book itself, all the rage in SF circles a few years back, is a weighty, involved, carefully considered, heavily footnoted tome that verges over the line into the ponderous. And while I know many that have picked it up, I know fewer who have not grounded on the shoals of its prodigious size and its determined non-genre approach (more on that later). For those who have bailed, I recommend the audio version, which allows the entire intricate mass to be ingested in many small commutes or several seriously long drives.

In my case, I dealt with many weeks of this audio, capped by taking it with me and the Lovely Bride for a road trip from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., half of which was occupied solely with bringing her up to speed in the richly detailed novel. Even after two long trips (there and back), I still ended up leaving disks at home for her to finish.

The title characters are the first practicing magicians in England in the 1800's. Actually, the first true magicians in hundreds of years, the ages of the golden and silver mages and of a magical kingdom centered on Newcastle long since gone. Most of the wizards of Britain of the later age are theoretical magicians, those who study magic but would never think to cast a spell.

And the book opens with one such group, a kind-hearted but ineffectual bunch that evoke Tolkien's hobbits or Wodehouse's Drones. Into their midst comes Norrell, who claims to be a practicing magician, and will prove it, but only if the members of the group promise to abjure from magic, theoretical or not, forever. He does so, crushing the hopes and dreams of these harmless hobbyists and you feel Norrell is the bad guy.

Until the next section pops up, where Norrell goes to London to aid in the war against Napoleon, only to be bruised and battered by the High Society set. And you come to, if not like Norrell, at least respect him and hope for him. And this is a very interesting, useful, and non-genre thing about the book. Its protagonists are complicated, erratic, and very human characters. They are both strong and weak, wise and foolish, emotional and centered.

As a result, the plot shifts and moves in strange and interesting ways. Whereas in the traditional fantasy genre you square off between the forces of good and evil in direct battle, here the game is slightly skewed. Characters miss asking the right question or making the right comment at the exactly precise moment, so you find that bolt of revelation delayed. Fights that you are convinced the author is building up to are defused, messages are missed, choices are made that make sense within a real world but leave the reader waiting for the plot to progress. In the end, all the characters resolve, yet the major battle between the protagonists never fully materializes. And yet it has a well and good resolution, and you walk away feeling satisfied, in a strange fashion.

If anything, you get the feeling that the Brits could rule the world through magic, if not for the fact that they are, well, British, and that in the hands of a less woolen-headed nationality things would have gone much worse.

And then there is the theory of magic itself. There is not one, at least to the degree that it is quantifiable. Norrell and Strange's English Magic lacks the intricacies of Vancian magics, and its rules, such as they are, have to be picked up in the process. They are simultaneously grounded and all over the place. No universal system of spellcasting exists - this is an age of hobbyists, and despite their interest, magic refuses to comply to examination and dissection. The other wondrous key in regards to magic is the fact that, like fish in a sea, people under the effects of magic are unaware of its presences - a forest grows in a urban street and everyone rewrites their memories so that it always seemed to be there. Understanding that the worlds itself can be twisted by creatures of magic is one of the underlying themes of the book, as is the changes necessary to understand those twistings.

In the end, its a lovely little world and beautiful book, and defies traditional genre depictions in the same manner as magic does within the world. If you have it sitting on your shelf, in your I-mean-to-get-back-to-it pile, it is worth checking out on disk.

There is one weakness of the audiobook format, and that is that it is very difficult to go back and check earlier matter. This is despite the fact that they've done an excellent job breaking the book into discrete tracks, and gave all the copious footnotes their own tracks. However, there is a prophesy in the book, long and involved, which comes true over time, in its own fashion, which the listener might want to refer to. Fortunately, as with all things, there is a wiki on the 'net to aid, though there are spoilers laying about, so to enjoy the book fully, don't poke around too much.

More later,