December 2004
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- This book has an extract available to read online -
A winter warmer for any time of year

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SIMON'S CHRISTMAS MUST-READ:
"Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell"
by Susanna Clarke


It has taken me a while to start writing this. I must admit that after I finished reading JS&MrN I felt as if I was in an emotional vacuum; such is the strength of this work.

I think that this book is going to win a lot of heavyweight prizes this year - I know it's up for the Whitbread best debut prize. Anyway, I've let the dust settle, and I can honestly say that this is the best fantasy story I've ever read, and probably, the best book I've read in decade.

It is written in the style of of the great Victorian novel e.g. in the style of Jane Austen, actually it reminds me more of Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" certainly in the manner of telling and some of the characters, also because it is set in the same period i.e. during the reign of George the third - he of the madness. However, although at war with Buonaparte as was the case in reality, and having many recognisable figures from history, the England of this novel is very different from our own.

In this world, there exists a magical tradition, thoroughly respectable which stretches back to the dark ages, dominated by the legendary, and shadowy figure of John Uskglass-'The Raven King' - ruler of three realms . At the beginning, magic has fallen into disuse and is a matter of theory mostly. That is, until the appearance of Mr Norrell. Things soon begin to change, reality becomes ever more eccentric and the story spirals up towards a shattering climax.

Reminiscent of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy we are introduced to the idea of parallel worlds, but where Susanna Clarke achieves a greater success than Phillip Pullman , is in the quality and depth of the characters which she builds for us. I think it is this, is which reminds one of the 19th century greats. There is a really believable tapestry woven of people who come in and out of the story as in real life. Each character seems personal and motivated in an individual way to the reader, and there really are a lot of them. In addition to this, there are no red herrings in this book no idle occurrences or blind alleys of coincidence designed to lend an air of richness; every happening is thought out, every turn of plot leads you somewhere - and usually not where you would expect it to. And there's a love story - of sorts. This book is going to make you really feel; it's extreme and totally satisfying. You won't want it to end, I know I didn't.

Best book for Xmas, get it in hard-back if you can, because it's going to pass through many hands.