Thursday, July 22, 2010

I believe Mr Strange will do very well in the war, sir. He has already out-manoeuvred you.

After a brief detour into the world of Shakespeare on speed, I'm back to the magical history of Strange and Norrell.  I spent last weekend at the shore and perhaps Strange & Norrell isn't the typical beach read, but as I literally read it on a beach, it's getting thrown in that category.  Besides my beach trips mostly consist of practically bathing in 70+SPF sunscreen and hiding in any bit of shade I can find, so it almost makes sense to read about an English setting instead of some light read where people frolic merrily in the sun. (Do books like that exist?  I'm sure they do but now that I've typed it I can't actually think of any.  Ah well.) 

Anyway, I'm more than half way through Volume II (page 497) in which we are (finally) introduced to Jonathan Strange.  This isn't a criticism of the pacing of the book; there is a lot of book to get through.  But before this new volume we spent a long time with Norrell with no reprieve.  Strange is a breath of fresh air.  As the book cover describes "Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrell," but it's not the fact that he is bizarro Norrell that makes him so interesting.  It's the fact that, as a fellow magician, he doesn't defer and give in to Norrell about everything.  The title quote in particular is from a scene that displays Strange's abilities to, as Lascelles says, out-maneuver Norrell.  Norrell has been hiding books from Strange from the moment they met and Norrell only agrees to convince Strange to help aid the war effort in Portugal because it means Strange won't be around to bid on a rare book collection that will recently become available.  So before Strange leaves he asks Norrell if he can borrow a number of books and, as dictated by etiquette, Norrell is forced to comply even though it means his books will be subject to all sorts of perils such as torn pages and damaged covers.  There is a part of me that understands Norrell's fear of damaged books but on the other hand, shut up Norrell. 

As I mentioned, Strange goes to Portugal to help with the English cause in the war against the French.  Look at that, some action!  And a magician that does magic.  He really is bizarro Norrell.  To be honest, I did enjoy watching Norrell make excuses and disappoint people when he would never perform magic and be a general bore.  He may be a sourpuss but he doesn't give into the wills of other people, much to Drawlight and Lascelles chagrin.  But it is nice to see a character who is likable and helps to move the plot along.  After some initial distrust from Wellington, Strange becomes an essential part of the war effort with his magic.

I especially like the tone the novel takes when discussing magic.  As the book is an alternate history and takes place in a world where magic is a large part of history and take seriously, magic is treated in an almost down-to-earth fashion.  When Strange first manages to prove his worth to Wellington, he suggests magically creating a road for the armies to use.  It would have been easy enough to have that been the end of it: Strange suggests magically creating a road, Wellington agrees, everyone in awe of magic.  Instead there are the details to consider: what should the road be made of, what happens if the French find the road and can make use of it, etc.  It isn't a matter that Clarke overwhelming the book with small details, but the fact that, if magic were real and being used this way, these all sounds like valid points that would be brought up.  And because they make good points about trying to use this magical road in the real world it makes the world more believable. 
I'm excited to continue the book and see what else happens to Strange, Norrell and of course the man with the thistle-down hair.  Perhaps my next entry will concern him, unless something else happens during my reading to distract me. 

Title quote page 367

Clarke, Susanna. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, London. 2004.